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The spigot has opened again, and Pluto pictures are pouring in once more 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's what is actually there," said Alan Stern. He is the New Horizons' principal scientist 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 speculate they might be dunes.
One outer solar-system geologist, William McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis, said if the ridges are, in fact, 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 haven't figured out is at work. It's a head-scratcher," McKinnon said in a written statement.
The jumble of mountains, on the other hand, may be huge blocks of ice. They could be floating in a softer, vast deposit of frozen nitrogen.
After several weeks of collecting engineering data from New Horizons, scientists started getting fresh Pluto pictures. The latest images were released Sept. 10.
Besides geologic features, the images show that the atmospheric haze surrounding Pluto has multiple layers. What's more, the haze creates a twilight effect. It enables New Horizons to study places on the night side that scientists never expected to see.
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 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 retrieve 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 maneuvers, New Horizons would reach PT1 - short for Potential Target 1 - in 2019.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did it take so long to get more photos from Pluto?
Write your answers in the comments section below