This July 14, 2015, photo provided by NASA shows a synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. The new close-up images of Pluto reveal an even more diverse landscape than scientists imagined before New Horizons swept past Pluto in July. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute via AP)
Pluto pictures are pouring in
September 17, 2015
The spout has opened again. Pictures from Pluto are pouring in again. They are coming from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.
These newest snapshots reveal an even more diverse landscape than scientists imagined. New Horizons swept past Pluto in July. It became the first spacecraft to ever visit the distant dwarf planet.
"If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top. But that is what is actually there," said Alan Stern. He is the New Horizons' principal scientist. He is from Southwest Research Institute. It is in Boulder, Colorado.
In one picture, dark ancient craters border much younger icy plains. Dark ridges also are visible. Some scientists think they might be dunes.
One outer solar-system geologist is William McKinnon. He is from Washington University in St. Louis. He said if the ridges are dunes that would be "completely wild." That is because of Pluto's thin atmosphere.
"Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we have not figured out is at work. It is a head-scratcher," McKinnon said in a written statement.
The jumble of mountains may be huge blocks of ice. They could be floating in a softer, big deposit of frozen nitrogen.
Scientists have started getting fresh Pluto pictures. This comes after several weeks of collecting engineering data from New Horizons. The latest images were released Sept. 10.
The images also show that the atmospheric haze surrounding Pluto has multiple layers. What is more, the haze creates a twilight effect. It enables New Horizons to study places on the night side. Scientists never expected to see them.
It has been more than two months since New Horizons' close encounter with Pluto. That was on July 14. Its journey began at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The flight has spanned 3 billion miles. And it has taken 9 1/2 years. As of Sept. 11, the spacecraft was 44 million miles past Pluto.
So much data was collected during the Pluto flyby that it will take until next fall to get it all on Earth. The spacecraft is operated from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. It is in Laurel, Maryland. The physics lab also designed and built it.
New Horizons' next target is awaiting formal approval by NASA. The plan is for it to reach a much smaller object that orbits 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. It, too, lies in the so-called Kuiper Belt. That is a frigid twilight zone on the outskirts of our solar system. Following a set of moves, New Horizons would reach PT1 in 2019. PT1 is short for Potential Target 1.
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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did it take so long to get more photos from Pluto?
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