NASA probe unveils Pluto’s striking surface variations

The first published results from the historic flyby of Pluto by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in July have unveiled the icy-dwarf planet’s striking surface variations and unique moon rotations. The colour images of Pluto, obtained with New Horizon’s Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), show a wide range of colours across Pluto’s surface – from dark, red regions at the equator to brighter, bluer regions at higher latitudes. A heart-shaped region interrupts this pattern by displaying different colours in its western and eastern lobes.

dnaTechScience, Pluto, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), NASA New Horizons, observational satellite

University of Maryland astronomers Silvia Protopapa and Douglas Hamilton are among the authors of the first published paper from the New Horizons flyby, published in the journal Science. Protopapa helped map the composition of Pluto’s surface and locate ices on it. Hamilton helped confirm the shapes, sizes and unique rotations of two of Pluto’s moons and the finding that no other moons appear to orbit Pluto. The findings will help scientists understand the origins and subsequent history of Pluto and its moons.

The team reports significant regional differences in volatile ices on Pluto’s surface. The western lobe of the heart-shaped region contains methane ice and carbon monoxide ice, while the dark red equatorial regions appear to contain very little volatile ice. The data from the spacecraft’s Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), released by NASA but not included in the scientific paper, shows numerous small exposed regions of water ice in the red areas of the colour images taken by the MVIC.

This data offers the first clear evidence of water ice on Pluto, following decades of trying to detect it using Earth-based telescopes, researchers said. Red colour on the surface indicates the presence of organic compounds called tholins, which are the result of energetic irradiation of methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide mixtures, researchers said.

The New Horizons team expects to learn more about the surface composition of the moons when they download additional LEISA data. The surface compositions of the moons also appear similar – Hydra boasts several crater-like features, and Nix sports a large crater that appears to be a different colour than the rest of the moon.

Posted by on October 16, 2015. Filed under Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.