Perplexing new 'snakeskin' image of Pluto terrain from New Horizons

September 25, 2015 by Tricia Talbert
In this extended color image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up along Pluto’s day-night terminator and show intricate but puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between. This view, roughly 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015, and resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The newest high-resolution images of Pluto from NASA's New Horizons are both dazzling and mystifying, revealing a multitude of previously unseen topographic and compositional details. The image below—showing an area near the line that separates day from night—captures a vast rippling landscape of strange, aligned linear ridges that has astonished New Horizons team members.

"It's a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles," said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis. "It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This'll really take time to figure out; maybe it's some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto's faint sunlight."

The "snakeskin" image of Pluto's surface is just one tantalizing piece of data New Horizons sent back in recent days. The spacecraft also captured the highest-resolution color view yet of Pluto, as well as detailed spectral maps and other high-resolution images.

The new "extended color" view of Pluto – taken by New Horizons' wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14 and downlinked to Earth on Sept. 19 – shows the extraordinarily rich color palette of Pluto.

"We used MVIC's infrared channel to extend our spectral view of Pluto," said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) 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."

Additionally, a high-resolution swath across Pluto taken by New Horizons' narrow-angle Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, and downlinked on Sept. 20, homes in on details of Pluto's geology. These images—the highest-resolution yet available of Pluto—reveal features that resemble dunes, the older shoreline of a shrinking glacial ice lake, and fractured, angular water ice mountains with sheer cliffs.

This cylindrical projection map of Pluto, in enhanced, extended color, is the most detailed color map of Pluto ever made. It uses recently returned color imagery from the New Horizons Ralph camera, which is draped onto a base map of images from the NASA’s spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). The map can be zoomed in to reveal exquisite detail with high scientific value. Color variations have been enhanced to bring out subtle differences. Colors used in this map are the blue, red, and near-infrared filter channels of the Ralph instrument. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

This closer look at the smooth, bright surface of the informally named Sputnik Planum shows that it is actually pockmarked by dense patterns of pits, low ridges and scalloped terrain. Dunes of bright volatile ice particles are a possible explanation, mission scientists say, but the ices of Sputnik may be especially susceptible to sublimation and formation of such corrugated ground.

Beyond the new images, new compositional information comes from a just-obtained 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 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 scientists aren't sure if that's because methane is more likely to condense there or that its condensation brightens those regions.

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planum. Enhanced color has been added from the global color image. This image is about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across. For optimal viewing, zoom in on the image on a larger screen. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

"It's like the classic chicken-or-egg problem," said Will Grundy, New Horizons surface composition team lead from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. "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."

"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," added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of SwRI. "I wish Pluto's discoverer Clyde Tombaugh had lived to see this day."

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, are the sharpest images to date of Pluto’s varied terrain—revealing details down to scales of 270 meters. In this 75-mile (120-kilometer) section of the taken from the larger, high-resolution mosaic above, the textured surface of the plain surrounds two isolated ice mountains. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The Ralph/LEISA infrared spectrometer on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft mapped compositions across Pluto’s surface as it flew by on July 14. On the left, a map of methane ice abundance shows striking regional differences, with stronger methane absorption indicated by the brighter purple colors here, and lower abundances shown in black. Data have only been received so far for the left half of Pluto’s disk. At right, the methane map is merged with higher-resolution images from the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Explore further: NASA's New Horizons team finds haze, flowing ice on Pluto

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infoguy
1 / 5 (5) Sep 25, 2015
The ridging is probably an effect from solar winds or current movement, condensing, across the hot magma during early formation.
The color is a false image and technically we don't have any way to validate what "colors" are present on Pluto. If it were reddish that would indicate iron ores which, with a lack of oxygen, would not oxidize.... Duh.
Ralph
not rated yet Sep 25, 2015
There is no color camera for visible wavelengths?
Mark Thomas
4.6 / 5 (5) Sep 25, 2015
Absolutely amazing. Perhaps now we can get it into our collectively thick heads that we learn EVERY time we visit a new world. Maybe it is because planets (and large dwarf planets) are layered, interconnected chaotic systems that end up vastly different from one another depending on subtle differences in conditions. For whatever the reason, simulation alone is unlikely to accurately portray the true range of planetary conditions we are finding. This means the only way to learn what is really out there is to go there.

It has been 42 years since people left low Earth orbit. How much longer until we come to our collective senses and realize there is an entire universe to explore beyond low Earth orbit?
Vietvet
4.3 / 5 (8) Sep 25, 2015
There is no color camera for visible wavelengths?


"Color variations have been enhanced to bring out subtle differences."

The images are in visible wavelengths. Color enhancement is a menu option on most digital cameras or it can be done with a program like Photoshop.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (6) Sep 26, 2015
@Ralph
There is no color camera for visible wavelengths?

Ha! Haaaaa! That is a good one... The irony of your comment is that the name of the color camera on New Horizons is Ralph http://www.nasa.g...lph.html

The colers from this instrument were combined with the pictures from the LORRI telescope to create this wonderful image http://www.nasa.g...ease.png Once you see the image, please, PLEASE, click on it and it is going to open in full hi-res. You are going to fall from your chair.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (6) Sep 26, 2015
Once you see the image, please, PLEASE, click on it and it is going to open in full hi-res. You are going to fall from your chair.
@TechnoCreed
THAT WAS AWESOME!
man, i almost DID fall out of my chair!

THANKS!
mreda14
not rated yet Oct 01, 2015
It was a night of rain and thunderstorms 34 years ago in the city of Moscow when the Russian spacecraft Venera 14 landed on the surface of Venus. The descent lander was a hermetically sealed pressure vessel, which contained most of the instrumentation and electronics, mounted on a ring-shaped landing platform and topped by an antenna. The design was similar to the earlier Venera 9–12 landers. It carried instruments to take chemical and isotopic measurements, monitor the spectrum of scattered sunlight, and record electric discharges during its descent phase through the Venusian atmosphere. The spacecraft utilized a camera system, an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, a screw drill and surface sampler, a dynamic penetrometer, and a seismometer to conduct investigations on the surface.
They discovered that the surface of Venus unfortunately contains no radio active material. At that night the city of Moscow recorded the highest consumption of Vodka.

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