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New Pluto images reveal flowing ice, thicker atmosphere than anticipated

Watch the video above: Flying across Pluto

TORONTO – Pluto is proving to be a stunning world of surprises for NASA scientists.

In a Friday press conference, NASA revealed a breathtaking image of the small world — an image of its nightside with the sun illuminating it. The surprise? That Pluto’s atmosphere extends farther out into space than previously believed — 5 times farther.

NASA released this photo of Pluto backlit by the sun on July 24
NASA released this photo of Pluto backlit by the sun on July 24. NASA

“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.

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“It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries — it brings incredible beauty.”

The thin haze extends about 100 miles outward, something that was a shock to planetary scientists.

WATCH: NASA scientists discuss the latest images of Pluto, and what they tell us 

It’s believed that the hazes form when ultraviolent light breaks up the planet’s methane gas particles. It then triggers a buildup of complex hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene and acetylene. These become heavier and fall to the lower and colder parts of the atmosphere, condense into ice particles which then creates the haze.

Scientists also believe that the sunlight then converts the haze into the dark hydrocarbons that give Pluto it’s reddish colour.

READ MORE: Meet Pluto’s equivalent of the Appalachian Mountains

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“We don’t understand why there’s a haze layer up to 100 miles outward,” said Cathy Olkin, New Horizons deputy project scientist at SwRI. “It really is a mystery.”

The team’s excitement over the collected data was evident as, before the presentation began, Stern told the gathered media, “Some of you, if you’re seeing a cardiologist, you might want to leave the room.”

Another stunning revelation was the “recent” geological activity on Pluto’s surface.

Pluto, in false colour, illustrate the different regions across the small world.
Pluto, in false colour, illustrate the different regions across the small world. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Tombaugh Regio, otherwise referred to as the “heart” of Pluto has lobes like a real heart, said Michael Summers, New Horizons co-investigator at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In particular, it appears that the right lobe, or the eastern region has a much thinner deposit that likely originates from the western lobe.

“This is pretty mind-blowing,” he said. “And that’s telling us something.”

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As well, there appears to be flowing ice on the surface.

The ice isn’t water ice, however. With Pluto’s frigid temperatures, water ice would be solid and immovable. Instead, it’s believed that the ice is nitrogen ice, carbon ice or methane ice, all of which would remain soft and malleable on Pluto.

“We have actual evidence of recent geological activity,” said Bill McKinnon, New Horizons co-investigator at Washington University in St. Louis.

In the northern region of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum, swirl-shaped patterns of light and dark suggest that a surface layer of exotic ices has flowed around obstacles and into depressions, much like glaciers on Earth.
In the northern region of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum, swirl-shaped patterns of light and dark suggest that a surface layer of exotic ices has flowed around obstacles and into depressions, much like glaciers on Earth. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

One image appears to show that ice flowing through a breach and partially filling in the interior of a crater.

Though it was hypothesized that this activity could be occurring on Pluto, seeing it happen or at least seeing the evidence is a whole other thing.

“To see evidence of recent geological activity is a dream come true,” said McKinnon.

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He was quick to point out that this “recent” activity is strictly in geological terms.

This annotated image of the southern region of Sputnik Planum illustrates its complexity, including the polygonal shapes of Pluto’s icy plains, its two mountain ranges, and a region where it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits.
This annotated image of the southern region of Sputnik Planum illustrates its complexity, including the polygonal shapes of Pluto’s icy plains, its two mountain ranges, and a region where it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

As for Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, scientists didn’t find evidence of a much of an atmosphere, though they can’t rule it out until more data is downlinked in September.

The New Horizons spacecraft has collected most of its data, however, only about five per cent of that has been transmitted to Earth over the past 10 days. The spacecraft is now approximately 7.5 million miles from Pluto.

The science will now take a different tack with data from other instruments being transmitted to Earth. The influx of images will recommence in September.

As for the mounting evidence for reinstating Pluto as the solar system’s ninth planet, Stern said, “It’s very hard to not call this object that is so complicated…a planet.”

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“We’ve never been to a double planet system before,” said Stern. “And it’s turning out to be a scienc wonderland.”