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New Horizons: Changing Weather and Stunning Landscapes on Pluto [PHOTOS]

Sep 20, 2015 09:31 PM EDT
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(Photo : NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI) Click the image for a wider view.

If you were standing on the icy surface of Pluto, you'd probably find yourself breathless, and not because you forgot your space suit. NASA's recently released new photos from their intrepid New Horizons spacecraft, and they show that not only is Pluto breathtaking, but it also is a surprisingly active world.

"This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself," New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said of the above image.

The photo was taken just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 km) away from the icy surface. A stunning 780 miles (1,250 km) wide, the sceneis one of many recently released that will hopefully give experts a better idea of what exactly the most beloved dwarf planet in our solar system is really like.

"This image is also a scientific bonanza," Stern added, "revealing new details about Pluto's atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains."

[Want to find out what NASA learned only 10 days after New Horizons' approach? Click here!]

New Horizons also saw what is suspected to be near-surface haze or fog. In a zoomed-in section of the same publically released photo, the setting sun illuminates a fog-like weather phenomenon cut by the parallel shadows of many local hills and mountains. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI) The image pictures about 115 miles (185 km) of the hazy Pluto surface.

"In addition to being visually stunning, these low-lying hazes hint at the weather changing from day to day on Pluto, just like it does here on Earth," Will Grundy, lead of the New Horizons Composition team from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona, explained in a statement.

Specifically, the hazes hint at a nitrogen-based glacial cycle that the New Horizons team and other investigators identified back in July.

"Driven by dim sunlight, this would be directly comparable to the hydrological cycle that feeds ice caps on Earth, where water is evaporated from the oceans, falls as snow, and returns to the seas through glacial flow," Alan Howard, a member of the mission's Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team, added.

"We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some surprises, and now we can say that our expectation has been more than surpassed," John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said when announcing the discovery.

"With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling."

Still, there are many mysteries that have yet to be answered. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI) This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) and sent back to Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible.

"There is a pronounced difference in texture between the younger, frozen plains to the east and the dark, heavily-cratered terrain to the west," Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) recently pointed out, when discussing a photo snapped when New Horizons was about 48,000 miles (77,000 km) from Pluto.

The photo (above) depicts a newly discovered mountain range near the southwestern margin of Pluto's Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region). Situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain, the new mountains are estimated to be about as tall as the United States' Appalachian Mountains (~1 mi high). The Norgay Mountains, the first range discovered on Pluto, are similar to the taller Rocky Mountains, by comparison.

"There's a complex interaction going on between the bright and the dark materials that we're still trying to understand," Moore said.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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