Pluto is the center of attention for the past weeks as the historic flyby of NASA’s New Horizons on July 14th, 2015 revealed fascinating details on the dwarf planet.
Research is just picking up and new information on what was once not even deemed worthy of being called a planet is now the object of fascination across the globe. Images and new information on Pluto is being revealed periodically, in a continuous stream of exciting news.
However, as all the data gathered by New Horizons will take approximately 16 months to be retrieved back to Earth, we have no other option than to wait patiently. Engineers with the New Horizons mission are hitting the brakes on Pluto news for a few weeks as they announced the next data packages mostly comprise engineering specific information.
Thus, we are left with quite some time to let the news settle. What have we learned about Pluto through the images released by NASA so far?
Pluto has a complex atmosphere that is now observed closely for the first time in history. Pluto is also home to two mountain ranges and the heart-shaped Tombaugh Region, particularly interesting for its geology. Pluto has five moons and the first high resolution images were already released.
The latest news concerns Pluto’s atmosphere. As New Horizons was passing the dwarf planet, LORRI – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager captured Pluto’s atmosphere in a breathtaking image showing how it is pierced by sunlight.
“My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt. It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries—it brings incredible beauty”,
stated New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.
Of course, beyond being a mesmerizing image, it is also the holder of a wealth of scientific data. By analyzing the images of Pluto’s atmosphere, it was found that it comprises two layers of haze spanning 130 kilometers from Pluto’s surface.
Previously it was thought that the haze would not lift more than 30 kilometers from the planet’s surface.
The two layers of haze are forming when UV sunlight sends methane gas or other hydrocarbons blasting. As the methane breaks down, new hydrocarbons stem. Ethylene and acetylene are found in Pluto’s atmosphere, albeit in a different form as they pass through the condensing process.
When the particles in the haze layers expand, they are drawn to the surface of the planet, forming the blanket that gives us the reddish brown color of Pluto’s surface. This gunk also comprises tholins.
New research concerning Pluto’s atmosphere and the haze layers is certain to follow. As is the case for the Sputnik Planum found in the Tombaugh Region, first viewed for the first time in the images beamed back by New Horizons.
This is a fascinating region as well, sporting nitrogen ice, carbon monoxide ice and methane ice, craters and mountain ranges, all shedding light on the geological formation of the planet, as well as on the different stages and ages of formation.
The images featuring the moons of Pluto are as awe-inspiring as any other. Nix and Hydra could be admired in color across the world. Nix, with its jelly bean like shape, and Hydra with its eerie resemblance to the state of Michigan captured a lot of attention as well.
There is still some time until images of Styx and Kerberos will be retrieved by NASA’s New Horizons team, but if the current releases are anything to judge by, future ones promise to be as captivating.
Photo Credits inquisitr.com