Pluto is home to a wide range of terrains astronomers were not expecting to see, including flowing ice, dramatic hazes and a "Heart of a Heart." These alien landscapes were revealed in images recorded by the first spacecraft ever to visit the distant body.
The New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015. The Mission discovered many distinctive terrains just days before the vessel flew past its primary target.
One of these features, Tombaugh Regio, resembles a massive heart. The Sputnik Planum, informally known as "The Heart of the Heart" could be a source of ices that cover vast areas on the surface of Pluto. A pair of bluish lobes that extend from the southwest to the northeast of the heart may be composed of exotic forms of ice, researchers believe.
Roughly seven hours after New Horizons passed by Pluto, the observatory looked back at the dwarf planet, recording a stunning image that showed haze extending around the planet reached several times higher than researchers predicted.
"My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt. It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries — it brings incredible beauty," said Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).
Pluto has been shown to be covered in reddish material, and researchers believe this haze plays a critical role in the formation of this alien surface. Ultraviolet light from the distant sun breaks apart molecules of methane gas, leading to the rise of ethylene and acetylene, among other complex hydrocarbons. These drop in the atmosphere, where they freeze, producing the distinctive hazes reaching up to 80 miles above the surface of the dwarf planet.
Sputnik Plenum, roughly the size of Texas, appears to hold ice that has flowed in recent geological history. Some researchers believe ices in the region are even flowing today, in much the same fashion as glaciers on our own planet.
"Meanwhile, New Horizons scientists are using enhanced color images (see below) to detect differences in the composition and texture of Pluto's surface ... The darkest terrains appear at the equator, mid-tones are the norm at mid-latitudes, and a brighter icy expanse dominates the north polar region," NASA reports.
On July 17, NASA also announced the appointment of Dr. Brian May as the latest New Horizons science collaborator. May, with a head full of long, curly white hair, is best known as the lead guitarist for famed '70s rock band Queen.