Earlier this week NASA released the closest ever view of pluto in as a series of images from New Horizons. The images were taken 15 minutes after it’s closest approach from an altitude of 17,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) above the surface. The high-resolution photos feature details on the scale of a city block.
These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto’s geology. Nothing of this quality was available for Venus or Mars until decades after their first flybys; yet at Pluto we’re there already – down among the craters, mountains and icefields – less than five months after flyby! The science we can do with these images is simply unbelievable.
Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator
The northern hemisphere of Pluto is home to a massive canyon system spanning hundreds of kilometers. In the feature image above, you can see a small section of this system that closely resembles geography we see here on earth. Scientists suspect that erosion and faulting have sculpted these canyons, as they would on earth, but instead of rain and wind, these ice mountains were subject to the harsh flow of nitrogen and other ices.
In this image you can see what appears to be large sections of Pluto’s ice crust crowded together in the newly dubbed al-Idrisi mountains. Some of these mountain walls reach as high as 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) above surface level. The base of these mountains gives way to a smoother terrain that is composed of softer nitrogen ices that form a near level surface environment.
The mountains bordering Sputnik Planum are absolutely stunning at this resolution. The new details revealed here, particularly the crumpled ridges in the rubbly material surrounding several of the mountains, reinforce our earlier impression that the mountains are huge ice blocks that have been jostled and tumbled and somehow transported to their present locations.
John Spencer, Southwest Research Institute
Check out this awesome movie that has been made from image captured by New Horizons. The images are a cross section of Pluto’s surface that span over 80 kilometers (50 miles) wide. The images were captured by Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), who snapped it’s shutter ever three seconds. At the same time the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) was scanning the surface for deeper data.
These close-up images, showing the diversity of terrain on Pluto, demonstrate the power of our robotic planetary explorers to return intriguing data to scientists back here on planet Earth. New Horizons thrilled us during the July flyby with the first close images of Pluto, and as the spacecraft transmits the treasure trove of images in its onboard memory back to us, we continue to be amazed by what we see.
John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate