The dwarf planet is so cold, scientists suspect that much of its atmosphere is frozen to its surface.
A stunning high-resolution image of Pluto by LORRI combined with color images from the Ralph instrument from just 280,000 miles (450,000 km) as the spacecraft was headed for closest approach.
Pluto and its largest moon Charon in natural color as seen on July 13 and July 14 by New Horizons. These kinds of flows have previously only been observed on Earth and Mars, according to John Spencer, New Horizons co-investigator.
There, a sheet of ice clearly appears to have flowed – and may still be flowing – in a manner similar to glaciers on Earth.
These potentially moving ices on Pluto aren’t made of water-ice like on Earth. There is clear evidence that the nitrogen is flowing into craters and around mountains, which are believed to be made of solid water-ice. Even at Pluto’s surface temperatures of about 380 degrees below zero, the elements prevalent in the ice are relatively soft and malleable, said Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the mission’s geology team.
The new images show fascinating details within the Texas-sized plain, informally named Sputnik Planum, which lies within the western half of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature, known as Tombaugh Regio.
NASA reports said the newly-found mountain range is situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain on the lower-left edge of the planet.
Pluto’s heart may actually be a reservoir of material that supplies the planet’s atmosphere and drives geological activity. But the new data shows that it’s also hazy with suspended hydrocarbons that are formed when ultraviolet solar rays break down the methane in the atmosphere into new substances.
And the world’s view of Pluto only improved July 15, when the New Horizons team unveiled crisp images snapped from just 47,800 miles above the surface.
“Nitrogen should be condensing and thus Pluto’s mass increasing, but instead we’re seeing the exact opposite”, said Michael Summers, New Horizons co-investigator at George Mason University.
The findings, he said, “are basically changing the way we think about Pluto’s atmosphere”.
Get ready to see Pluto like you’ve never seen it before.
We’ve taken measurements of Pluto’s surface pressure before, by watching the readings as it passes in front of other suns.
Because Pluto has such a distant and elliptical orbit around the Sun (each year lasts 248 Earth years) it was thought that the atmosphere would diminish as it moves away from our star.
It’s even possible that New Horizons, by some stroke of luck, actually got to Pluto right around the time that the dwarf planet’s atmosphere started going through the first stages of its seasonal increase in its atmospheric loss rate, the mission’s principal investigator Alan Stern said.