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New Horizons: Pluto Geology Visible With 1 Million Miles to Go

Jul 13, 2015 04:26 AM EDT

The intrepid spacecraft New Horizons is a mere one-million miles away from Pluto, and as it draws ever closer, it's getting a never-before-seen view of the mysterious dwarf planet's rough and rugged surface.

Following a journey of an estimated 3-billion miles, NASA's New Horizons has managed to draw close enough to the former 9th planet to see complex and intriguing patterns of bright and dark markings on the alien world's surface.

"We're close enough now that we're just starting to see Pluto's geology," New Horizons program scientist Curt Niebur, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, reiterated in a statement.

He explained that, like many of the geological experts working with New Horizon imagery and data, he's keenly interest in an immense dark band that closely resembles that of a whale. It measures some 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) in length. (Scroll to read on...)

Neibur is keeping his eyes on one smaller region in particular, located just at the "whale's tail."

"It's a unique transition region with a lot of dynamic processes interacting, which makes it of particular scientific interest," he explained.

In new and colored maps of Pluto's surface (as far as is known) released to the public nearly a week ago, it was revealed that the whale's tail "cradles a bright donut-shaped feature about 200 miles (350 kilometers) across."

" At first glance it resembles circular features seen elsewhere in the solar system, from impact craters to volcanoes," NASA reported. "But scientists are holding off on making any interpretation of this and other features on Pluto until more detailed images are in hand." (Scroll to read on...)

"We're at the 'man in the moon' stage of viewing Pluto," John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute and , deputy leader of the Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team cautioned in a statement. "It's easy to imagine you're seeing familiar shapes in this bizarre collection of light and dark features. However, it's too early to know what these features really are."

New Horizons is approaching Pluto after a more than nine-year, three-billion mile journey. At 7:49 AM EDT on Tuesday, July 14 the unmanned spacecraft will zip past Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour (49,600 kilometers per hour), with a suite of seven science instruments busily gathering data. The mission will complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system with the first-ever look at the icy dwarf planet.

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

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