Pluto is hazier than scientists expected and appears to be covered with flowing ice

July 25, 2015 4:59 am

team responsible for the New Horizons flyby of Pluto last week released
new pictures Friday of the previously unexplored world on the edge of
the solar system.
“If you’re seeing a cardiologist, you may want
to leave the room,” principal scientist Alan Stern teased at the opening
of the conference at headquarters. “There are some pretty
mind-blowing discoveries.”
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, now
7.5 million miles beyond Pluto, has detected layers of haze stretching
100 miles (160 kilometers) into the atmosphere, much higher than
anticipated. All this haze is believed to account for the dwarf planet’s
reddish color.
If you were standing on Pluto and looking up, you
probably wouldn’t notice the haze, said George Mason University’s
Michael Summers. In fact, New Horizons had to wait until after its
closest approach on July 14, so the sun would silhouette Pluto and the
atmosphere could be measured by means of the scattered sunlight.

As for the ice flows, they appear to be relatively recent: no
more than a few tens of millions of years, according to William McKinnon
of Washington University in St. Louis. That compares with the 4.5
billion-year age of Pluto and the rest of the solar system.
To see evidence of such recent activity, he said, is “simply a dream come true.”
on Pluto are minus 380 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 229 degrees Celsius),
and so water ice would not move anywhere in such extreme cold. But
McKinnon said the nitrogen and other ices believed to be on Pluto would
be geologically soft and therefore able to flow like glaciers on Earth.
of that plutonian ice seems to have emptied into impact craters,
creating ponds of frozen nitrogen. One of those semi-filled craters is
about the size of metropolitan Washington D.C., McKinnon said.
These latest findings support the theory that an underground ocean might exist deep beneath Pluto’s icy crust, McKinnon said.
ice flows – which might still be active – are found on Pluto’s vast icy
plain, now called Sputnik Planum after Earth’s first man-made
satellite. The plain is about the size of Texas and occupies the left
side of Pluto’s bright heart-shaped feature, named Tombaugh Regio after
the late astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh.
evident now that the two “lobes” of the heart are quite different;
Stern speculated that nitrogen snow could possibly be blowing from the
brighter left, or western, side to the right.
One of Pluto’s
newly discovered mountain ranges now bears the name of Sir Edmund
Hillary, who along with Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay conquered Mount
Everest in 1953. The New Horizons team already had named another series
of mountains after Norgay.
The spacecraft traveled 3 billion
miles over 9 years to get the first close-up look of Pluto. The New
Horizons team stressed that most of the collected data are still aboard
the spacecraft and will take more than a year to obtain. Over the next
several weeks, much of the incoming transmissions will consist of
engineering or other technical data ” and only a few images.
starting in mid-September, “the spigot opens again,” promised Stern, a
scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. From then until fall
2016, “The sky will be raining presents with data from the Pluto system.
It’s going to be quite a ride.”

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