Surface features of Pluto revealed in the latest close-up images from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft have scientists agog over the range, variety and complexity of the dwarf planet's topography.
Images sent back in the past few days as the spacecraft began its yearlong download of new pictures and other data have more than doubled the amount of Pluto's surface seen at resolutions as good as 440 yards per pixel, NASA scientists say.
The new views are nothing short of spectacular, they say.
"Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we've seen in the solar system," says Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. "If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top — but that's what is actually there."
Pluto has gone from a distant and mysterious world to an object of extreme scientific curiosity — and now intense examination, courtesy of New Horizons.
The new images are intriguing NASA astronomers with views of flows of nitrogen ice spreading from mountains onto flat plains, possible dune regions, and networks of valleys carved into Pluto's surface by as yet unknown materials.
"The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars," says Jeff Moore, who heads the mission's Geology, Geophysics and Imaging group at the space agency's Ames Research Center in California. "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."
Despite the amazing images seen so far and posted on a NASA webpage, the best is yet to come, Stern says.
The 95 percent of the data still to come will include "the best datasets, the highest-resolution images and spectra, the most important atmospheric datasets, and more," he says. "It's a treasure trove."
It's a trove that will require some patience on the part of the NASA researchers; data from New Horizons needs more than four hours to travel the billions of miles back to Earth, and the immense amount of data stored on the spacecraft will need more than a year to be transmitted back.
New Horizons is currently streaming its data back to Earth from a position 43 million miles past Pluto as it heads to its next destination, another large object in the distant Kuiper Belt.