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

July 24, 2015
Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image, delivered to Earth on July 23, is displayed with north at the top of the frame. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Flowing ice and a surprising extended haze are among the newest discoveries from NASA's New Horizons mission, which reveal distant Pluto to be an icy world of wonders.

"We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some surprises, and now—10 days after closest approach—we can say that our expectation has been more than surpassed," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. "With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling."

Just seven hours after closest approach, New Horizons aimed its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) back at Pluto, capturing sunlight streaming through the atmosphere and revealing hazes as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) above Pluto's surface. A preliminary analysis of the image shows two distinct layers of haze—one about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface and the other at an altitude of about 30 miles (50 kilometers).

"My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt," said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. "It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries—it brings incredible beauty."

Studying Pluto's atmosphere provides clues as to what's happening below.

"The hazes detected in this image are a key element in creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto's surface its reddish hue," said Michael Summers, New Horizons co-investigator at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. 

Models suggest the hazes form when ultraviolet sunlight breaks up methane gas particles—a simple hydrocarbon in Pluto's atmosphere. The breakdown of methane triggers the buildup of more complex hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene and acetylene, which also were discovered in Pluto's atmosphere by New Horizons. As these hydrocarbons fall to the lower, colder parts of the atmosphere, they condense into ice particles that create the hazes. Ultraviolent sunlight chemically converts hazes into tholins, the dark hydrocarbons that color Pluto's surface.

Scientists previously had calculated temperatures would be too warm for hazes to form at altitudes higher than 20 miles (30 kilometers) above Pluto's surface.

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"We're going to need some new ideas to figure out what's going on," said Summers.

The New Horizons mission also found in LORRI images evidence of exotic ices flowing across Pluto's surface and revealing signs of recent geologic activity, something scientists hoped to find but didn't expect.   

The new images show fascinating details within the Texas-sized plain, informally named Sputnik Planum, which lies within the western half of Pluto's heart-shaped feature, known as Tombaugh Regio. There, a sheet of ice clearly appears to have flowed—and may still be flowing—in a manner similar to glaciers on Earth.

"We've only seen surfaces like this on active worlds like Earth and Mars," said mission co-investigator John Spencer of SwRI. "I'm really smiling."

Additionally, new compositional data from New Horizons' Ralph instrument indicate the center of Sputnik Planum is rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices.

"At Pluto's temperatures of minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit, these ices can flow like a glacier," said Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team at Washington University in St. Louis. "In the southernmost region of the heart, adjacent to the dark equatorial region, it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits."

The New Horizons mission will continue to send data stored in its onboard recorders back to Earth through late 2016. The spacecraft currently is 7.6 million miles (12.2 million kilometers) beyond Pluto, healthy and flying deeper into the Kuiper Belt.

Explore further: Image: NASA's New Horizons finds second mountain range in Pluto's 'Heart'

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16 comments

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Returners
3.3 / 5 (4) Jul 24, 2015
Now this is awesome.

Clear evidence of both active, uv/chemistry driven weather and active geology.

You can even just see the rim of a crater basin since filled over with ice.

I said it looked like something had flowed down the face of those mountains and re-frozen, but perhaps it was just a continual glacier the whole time? Anyway, good findings and good presentation.

So I am to understand Pluto's atmosphere is complex, i.e. has a troposphere and a stratosphere (maybe in this case skip to a thermosphere or ionosphere)? Who would have thought.
Returners
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 24, 2015
This should be upgraded back to a major planet. It has more complex weather and geology than half the "major" planets.

This classification system is flawed.
nevermark
4 / 5 (3) Jul 24, 2015
This classification system is flawed.


Agreed. A tiny subset of astronomers have their head in the sand if they think they can redefine a word already used by every English speaker in the world.

Phrases that allow for a major/dwarf distinction AND retain common English usage of the word "planet" are easy to define:

"Planet" - any stellar satellite large enough to form a (near) sphere. Includes Pluto.

"Major planet - Subset of planets that dominate their part of the solar system (we have 8)

"Dwarf planet" - Subset of planets that don't dominate (Ceres, Pluto, Eris, etc.)

If they don't fix their technical terminology to match common language, people are going to be distracted from real astronomy by a meaningless terminology debate about Pluto's "planethood" forever.
JustAnotherGuy
4 / 5 (4) Jul 24, 2015
So, we shall replace a "flawed" classification system with others flawed classification systems... that is it?
Geology? There are plenty of object's physical and orbital characteristics to be considered before geology... not to mention that lot of objects shows activity... ever heard of comets?
Now let me state something that seems to be out of the reach of some people: a dwarf planet IS a planet! See? it's easy.. the smaller, of the same kind..
An 'update' to this basis for classification should be a category for the 'gas giants', although the lack of it isn't a flaw..
By the way, there is an issue concerning Ceres that you may consider a flaw... do you know what is it? I guess not...
Returners
2.3 / 5 (4) Jul 24, 2015
Ceres is differentiated. I'm pretty sure it's also more massive than the rest of the asteroid belt combined too.
Returners
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 25, 2015
You people know you agree with me, but you down-vote me out of spite. So sad. Like the ones who down-voted Alizee.
Uncle Ira
2 / 5 (8) Jul 25, 2015
@ Returnering-Skippy. Are you on the drugs again this morning?

You people know you agree with me, but you down-vote me out of spite. So sad. Like the ones who down-voted Alizee.


How you think that anybody down-voted Alizee on the physorg? She has not made the postum to down-vote or to up-vote either. When she signs up and makes the silly postum like you do I will give her the down-vote. Choot, even if she makes the smart postum I will still give her the down-vote because it is really goofy when a woman over 30 years old acts and talks like she is 13 years old. Have you ever heard her talk? She sounds like a little kiddo with a really bad cold.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (2) Jul 25, 2015
"We're going to need some new ideas to figure out what's going on," said Summers.


Yep, to say the least!
barakn
5 / 5 (4) Jul 25, 2015
I find this conversation a little confusing. Wasn't Alizee just another Zephir suckpuppet?
Uncle Ira
2.6 / 5 (5) Jul 25, 2015
I find this conversation a little confusing. Wasn't Alizee just another Zephir suckpuppet?


It wouldn't surprise me non, Zephir does pick out some pretty weird names. But this the Alizee that makes all the videos dressing up like the prostitute and talking and singing like a little girl even though she is 31 or 30 years old or maybe even older than that. She sounds like a little girl cartoon Skippette with a bad cold.
Returners
1 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2015
I find this conversation a little confusing. Wasn't Alizee just another Zephir suckpuppet?


It wouldn't surprise me non, Zephir does pick out some pretty weird names. But this the Alizee that makes all the videos dressing up like the prostitute and talking and singing like a little girl even though she is 31 or 30 years old or maybe even older than that. She sounds like a little girl cartoon Skippette with a bad cold.


She actually wears more clothing than the typical American female vocalist/performer.

People like her because she's a very good improv dancer, and she's pretty darn good singer too.

Britney Spears and Christina Aguillera, and even Katie Perry and other big U.S. female vocalists do their acts in string bikinis for God's sake, and you're criticizing Alizee for wearing a dress or mini-skirt?

You are an asshole man.
Returners
1 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2015
This was her 4 years ago, you asshole. She's dressed perfectly decently compared to the lewdness of U.S. performers, and she's singing in English as a second (or third?) language, and to be honest to God she's better sounding than most of the "superstars" in the U.S.

https://www.youtu...BZBXSGIw

Who's the one with an ENVY problem now?

You lying jerk.
Uncle Ira
2.1 / 5 (7) Jul 25, 2015
Britney Spears and Christina Aguillera, and even Katie Perry and other big U.S. female vocalists do their acts in string bikinis for God's sake, and you're criticizing Alizee for wearing a dress or mini-skirt?


I don't like them either me. They also try to talk like a 12 year old and it is just silly for a grown woman to act like 12 when everybody knows they haven't been 12 years old for twenty years.

You are an asshole man.


Well at least I have the good job for 26 years, for the very same company for the last 15 years. I also have the good wife for 16 years and my own house and my own two cars. What you got Cher? Just the long list of reasons that life is so unfair to you, eh?

Suck it up Skippy, you are making the spectacle of your self and it is not so much flattering to you non.
Billy_Madison
not rated yet Jul 27, 2015
Couldn't Pluto's geology be a result from tidal forces caused from it's orbital bodies (moons) i.e. Charon? Shifting masses of ice sheets from gravitational pulls could result in geological deformations couldn't it?
OdinsAcolyte
not rated yet Jul 27, 2015
cool little dude

Perhaps there are Plutonic ice monsters.

This is fascinating.
OdinsAcolyte
1 / 5 (1) Jul 27, 2015
cool little dude

Perhaps there are Plutonic ice monsters.

This is fascinating.

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