NASA has released incredibly detailed images of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft in July during its historic flyby.
The stunning photos reveal a complex and varied terrain on the icy dwarf planet.
The photos show the oldest terrain spotted on Pluto, which is heavily cratered as well as newer terrain characterized by icy plains.
“The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in a statement. “The randomly jumbled mountains might be huge blocks of hard water ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the region informally named Sputnik Planum.”
The pictures, some at a resolution of up to 400 meters per pixel, show features like possible dunes, nitrogen ice flows and “networks of valleys that may have been carved by material flowing over Pluto’s surface,” according to a news release.
There are also “chaotically jumbled” mountains NASA says may be similar to terrain seen on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
“Seeing dunes on Pluto — if that is what they are — would be completely wild, because Pluto’s atmosphere today is so thin,” said William B. McKinnon, a GGI deputy lead from Washington University, St. Louis, in a statement. “Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we haven’t figured out is at work. It’s a head-scratcher.”
Another source of surprise has been the revelation that Pluto’s thin atmospheric haze has many more layers than previously thought.