NASA has released a stunning high-definition image of Pluto as seen from the New Horizons spacecraft, illustrating the different layers of the small world’s atmosphere.
Pluto is in shadow, but the sun is illuminating the dwarf planet’s hazy atmosphere, an atmosphere that surprised planetary scientists when the New Horizons spacecraft flew by on July 14, 2015. (You can see the high-resolution image here.)
While it was widely believed that Pluto had a thin atmosphere, scientists were surprised to discover that it extended farther out into space than believed, up to 200 km.
It’s believed that the haze is photochemical smog from sunlight acting on methane and other molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere. This in turn produces a mixture of hydrocarbons like ethylene and acetylene, that accumulate into small particles and scatter the sunlight producing the blue haze seen in the image.
The particles settle down into different layers, with some stretching out hundreds of kilometres.
New Horizons was the first spacecraft to fly past Pluto. It is currently more than five billion km from Earth on its way to another object in the Kuiper Belt, an area of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Pluto.
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