New Horizons has sent back one of its most intriguing images of the surface of Pluto.
It shows a mysterious object appearing to ‘slide’ through the surface.
Nasa experts believe the object may be a Â ‘dirty block of water ice’.
They say it is ‘floating’ in denser solid nitrogen, and which has been dragged to the edge of a convection cell.
Also visible are thousands of pits in the surface, which scientists believe may form by sublimation.
Transmitted to Earth on Dec. 24, this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) extends New Horizons’ highest-resolution views of Pluto to the very center of Sputnik Planum, the informally named icy plain that forms the left side of Pluto’s ‘heart’ feature.
Sputnik Planum is at a lower elevation than most of the surrounding area by a couple of miles, but is not completely flat.
Its surface is separated into cells or polygons 10 to 25 miles (16 to 40 kilometers) wide, and when viewed at low sun angles (with visible shadows), the cells are seen to have slightly raised centers and ridged margins, with about 100 yards (100 meters) of overall height variation.
Mission scientists believe the pattern of the cells stems from the slow thermal convection of the nitrogen-dominated ices that fill Sputnik Planum.
A reservoir that’s likely several miles or kilometers deep in some places, the solid nitrogen is warmed at depth by Pluto’s modest internal heat, becomes buoyant and rises up in great blobs, and then cools off and sinks again to renew the cycle.
‘This part of Pluto is acting like a lava lamp,’ said William McKinnon, deputy lead of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team, from Washington University in St. Louis, ‘if you can imagine a lava lamp as wide as, and even deeper than, the Hudson Bay.’
Computer models by the New Horizons team show that these blobs of overturning solid nitrogen can slowly evolve and merge over millions of years. The ridged margins, which mark where cooled nitrogen ice sinks back down, can be pinched off and abandoned.
The ‘X’ feature is likely one of theseâ€”a former quadruple junction where four convection cells meet. Numerous, active triple junctions can be seen elsewhere in the LORRI mosaic.
Scientists from NASAâ€™s New Horizons mission have also combined data from two instruments to create this composite image of Plutoâ€™s informally named Viking Terra area.
Nasa also revealed new images of Plutoâ€™s informally named Viking Terra area.
The combined data includes pictures taken by the spacecraftâ€™s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015, from a range of about 31,000 miles (49,000 kilometers), showing features as small as 1,600 feet (480 meters) across.
Draped over the LORRI mosaic is enhanced color data from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), gathered about 20 minutes after the LORRI snapshots were taken, from a range of 21,000 miles (34,000 kilometers) and at a resolution of about 2,100 feet (650 meters) per pixel.
The entire scene is 160 miles (250 kilometers) across.
Among the features scientists find particularly interesting are the bright methane ices that condensed on many crater rims; the collection of dark red tholins (small soot-like particles generated from reactions involving methane and nitrogen in the atmosphere) in low areas, like the bottoms of craters; and the layering on the faces of steep cliffs and on crater walls.
In areas where the reddish material is thickest and the surface appears smooth, the material seems to have flowed into some channels and craters. Scientists say tholin deposits of that thickness arenâ€™t usually mobile on large scales, suggesting that they might be riding along with ice flowing underneath, or being blown around by Plutoâ€™s winds.
The images are the latest to show mysterious ‘pits’ on the ‘heart’ of Pluto have been revealed in unprecedented detail, along with colour images of the dwarf planet’s ‘badlands’.
Mission scientists believe these mysterious indentations may form through a combination of ice fracturing and evaporation.
The scarcity of overlying impact craters in this area also leads scientists to conclude that these pits â€“ typically hundreds of yards across and tens of yards deep â€“ formed relatively recently.Â
Their alignment provides clues about the ice flow and the exchange of nitrogen and other volatile materials between the surface and the atmosphere.
On July 14 the telescopic camera on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took the highest resolution images ever obtained of the intricate pattern of ‘pits’ across a section of Pluto’s prominent heart-shaped region, informally named Tombaugh Regio.Â The image is part of a sequence taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) as the spacecraft passed within 9,550 miles (15,400 kilometers) of Pluto’s surface, just 13 minutes before the time of closest approach.
The image is part of a sequence taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) as the spacecraft passed within 9,550 miles (15,400 kilometers) of Pluto’s surface, just 13 minutes before the time of closest approach.
The magnified view is 50-by-50 miles (80-by-80 kilometers) across.
The large ring-like structure near the bottom right of the magnified view – and the smaller one near the bottom left – may be remnant craters.
The upper-left quadrant of the image shows the border between the relatively smooth Sputnik Planum ice sheet and the pitted area, with a series of hills forming slightly inside this unusual ‘shoreline.’
Pictured here is the mountainous shoreline of Sputnik Planum. In this highest-resolution image from New Horizons, great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. ‘The mountains bordering Sputnik Planum are absolutely stunning at this resolution,’ said New Horizons science team member John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute
Nasa also revealed a new colourised version of the surface.
This enhanced color mosaic combines some of the sharpest views of Pluto that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft obtained during its July 14 flyby.
The pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet (77-85 meters) per pixel â€“ revealing features smaller than half a city block on Pluto’s surface.
Lower resolution color data (at about 2,066 feet, or 630 meters, per pixel) were added to create this new image.
The images form a strip 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide, trending (top to bottom) from the edge of ‘badlands’ northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, onto the shoreline of Pluto’s ‘heart’ feature, and just into its icy plains.
They combine pictures from the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) taken approximately 15 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with â€“ from a range of only 10,000 miles (17,000 kilometers) â€“ with color data (in near-infrared, red and blue) gathered by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) 25 minutes before the LORRI pictures.
This image reveals new details of Pluto’s rugged, icy cratered plains, including layering in the interior walls of many craters. ‘Impact craters are nature’s drill rigs, and the new, highest-resolution pictures of the bigger craters seem to show that Pluto’s icy crust, at least in places, is distinctly layered,’ said William McKinnon, deputy lead of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team
‘The wide variety of cratered, mountainous and glacial terrains seen here gives scientists and the public alike a breathtaking, super-high-resolution color window into Pluto’s geology,’ Nasa said.
From its rugged ‘badlands’ to its mountainous shorelines, the latest pictures are part of a sequence taken 15 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14.
The resolution is stunning. At around 80 metres per pixel, incredible details can be picked out, such as huge ice blocks, dramatic craters and crumpled ridges – allÂ less than half the size of a city block on Pluto’s diverse surface.
‘These close-up images, showing the diversity of terrain on Pluto, demonstrate the power of our robotic planetary explorers to return intriguing data to scientists back here on planet Earth,’ said John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and associate administrator for Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate.
‘New Horizons thrilled us during the July flyby with the first close images of Pluto, and as the spacecraft transmits the treasure trove of images in its onboard memory back to us, we continue to be amazed by what we see.’
These latest images form a strip 50 miles (80 km) wide on a world three billion miles away.
The pictures trend from Pluto’s jagged horizon about 500 miles (800 km) northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, over the shoreline of Sputnik, and across its icy plains.
‘These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto’s geology,’ said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
‘Nothing of this quality was available for Venus or Mars until decades after their first flybys; yet at Pluto we’re there already â€“ down among the craters, mountains and ice fields â€“ less than five months after flyby. The science we can do with these images is simply unbelievable.’
The images were captured with the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard New Horizons, about 15 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto â€“ from a range of just 10,000 miles (17,000 km).
They were obtained with an unusual observing mode; instead of working in the usual ‘point and shoot,’ LORRI snapped pictures every three seconds while the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) aboard New Horizons was scanning the surface.
This mode requires unusually short exposures to avoid blurring the images.
These new images are six times better than the resolution of the global Pluto map New Horizons obtained, and five times better than the best images of Pluto’s cousin Triton, Neptune’s large moon, obtained by Voyager 2 in 1989.
Mission scientists expect more imagery from this set over the next several days, showing even more terrain at this highest resolution.
It follows an image released by Nasa last month showing 10 close-ups of the frosty, faraway world today, representing one Pluto day, which is equivalent to 6.4 Earth days.
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