Beamed across billions of miles and a very narrow bandwidth, the latest images from the Pluto flyby were worth waiting for. One reveals the view from New Horizons after it sped past Pluto and looked back to study its atmosphere. “This is our equivalent on New Horizons of the Apollo 11 earthrise,” says New Horizons’ Alan Stern.
It is both beautiful and mysterious. Backlighting by the sun shows that Pluto’s atmosphere is about four times taller than scientists thought was possible. It has two distinct layers of haze–one at 30 miles above the surface, and another at 50 miles. The haze extends to about 80 miles out, whereas scientists previously thought that it could only extend to 20 miles.
From a NASA press release:
Another image suggests that ice sheets have scraped across Pluto’s “Sputnik Plains” sometime in recent history–within the last 10s of millions of years–and may still be doing so today. So far, evidence of this phenomenon has only ever been observed on Earth and Mars. “From what we know of the heat flow coming from interior, there’s no reason that this stuff cannot be going on today,” said New Horizons’ Bill McKinnon.
The image shows an area that’s about 250 miles across. It shows evidence of deep and extensive erosion, while the top shows evidence of a viscous ice flow filling in a crater. “The plains seem to have moved and surrounded the mountains,” said McKinnon. “To see evidence of recent geological activity is a dream come true.”
You can fly over Sputnik Planum in this NASA video:
Our map of Pluto is starting to get pretty detailed now:
And speaking of detail, remember that incredible image of Pluto’s heart that New Horizons sent back just before the flyby? Well, it just got even better.