NASA’s New Horizons has beamed back its best color picture of the dwarf planet Pluto, as well as other stunning, close-up images of the planet’s surface and spectral maps.
“With these just-downlinked images and maps, we’ve turned a new page in the study of Pluto beginning to reveal the planet at high resolution in both color and composition,” said Dr Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, principal investigator for New Horizons.
The new view of Pluto shows the extraordinarily rich color palette of the dwarf planet. It was taken by New Horizons’ Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera on July 14, 2015, and downlinked to NASA on September 19.
“We used camera’s infrared channel to extend our spectral view of Pluto,” said New Horizons team member Dr John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
“Pluto’s surface colors were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds.”
“Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode.”
Other high-res images of the dwarf planet reveal features that resemble dunes, the older shoreline of a shrinking glacial ice lake, and fractured, angular water ice mountains with sheer cliffs.
Beyond the new photos, new info comes from a map of methane ice across part of Pluto’s surface that reveals striking contrasts: Sputnik Planum has abundant methane, while the region informally named Cthulhu Regio shows none, aside from a few isolated ridges and crater rims. Mountains along the west flank of Sputnik lack methane as well.
The distribution of methane across the dwarf planet’s surface is anything but simple, with higher concentrations on bright plains and crater rims, but usually none in the centers of craters or darker regions.
Outside of Sputnik Planum, methane ice appears to favor brighter areas, but New Horizons researchers aren’t sure if that’s because methane is more likely to condense there or that its condensation brightens those regions.
“We’re unsure why this is so, but the cool thing is that New Horizons has the ability to make exquisite compositional maps across the surface of Pluto, and that’ll be crucial to resolving how enigmatic Pluto works,” said New Horizons team member Dr Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
New Horizons is now 3.1 billion miles (5 billion km) from our planet and 53.9 million miles (86.7 million km) beyond Pluto. The spacecraft is healthy and all systems are operating normally.