Pluto's weather 'remarkably Earth-like'

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With each batch of images that rolls in from New Horizons, scientists learn more about Pluto's characteristics. Newslook
Pluto’s Majestic Mountains, Frozen Plains and Foggy Hazes just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. (Photo: Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
14 CONNECT 30 TWEET LINKEDIN 2 COMMENT EMAIL MORE New backlight photos of Pluto revealed a hazy discovery — Earth-like weather patterns.
Foggy nitrogen hangs 60 miles above Pluto's surface, according to an analysis of images sent by the New Horizons spacecraft on Sept. 13 . Scientists at NASA compared the photos to previous images of the dwarf planet and found ice patterns moving more quickly than anticipated.
The movement of the thin haze layers showed a weather system that changes each day, like on Earth, said New Horizons scientist Will Grundy in an interview with NASA. Earth's weather goes through a hydrological cycle — it moves water through patterns of evaporation and precipitation, from ice to clouds to snow and back. Pluto's weather rotates in a similar cycle, but with nitrogen and exotic ices.
“Pluto is surprisingly Earth-like in this regard and no one predicted it,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern in an interview with NASA.
Near-surface haze or fog on Pluto, in this small section of the larger crescent image of Pluto, taken by NASA’s New Horizons just 15 minutes after the spacecraft’s closest approach on July 14, 2015. The setting sun illuminates a fog or near-surface haze, which is cut by the parallel shadows of many local hills and small mountains. (Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
New Pluto photos leave NASA scientists 'reeling'
Older photos revealed Pluto's vast icy plain scientists call Sputnik Planum. Evaporated ice appears to have resettled to the plain's east based on the new images, showing evidence of ice cycles, NASA scientists said. Moving glaciers and frozen nitrogen streams in the area are similar to glacial movement on Greenland or Antarctica.
Scientists said they didn't expect that level of change so far from the heat of the sun.
In the center of this 300-mile (470-kilometer) wide image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is a large region of jumbled, broken terrain on the northwestern edge of the vast, icy plain informally called Sputnik Planum, to the right. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. This image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI Fullscreen Charon, which is 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) in diameter, displays a surprisingly complex geological history, including tectonic fracturing; relatively smooth, fractured plains in the lower right; several enigmatic mountains surrounded by sunken terrain features on the right side; and heavily cratered regions in the center and upper left portion of the disk. There are also complex reflectivity patterns on Charon’s surface, including bright and dark crater rays, and the conspicuous dark north polar region at the top of the image. The smallest visible features are 2.9 miles 4.6 kilometers) in size. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI Fullscreen Two different versions of an image of Pluto’s haze layers, taken by New Horizons as it looked back at Pluto's dark side nearly 16 hours after close approach, from a distance of 480,000 miles (770,000 kilometers), at a phase angle of 166 degrees. Pluto's north is at the top, and the sun illuminates Pluto from the upper right. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI Fullscreen This 220-mile (350-kilometer) wide view of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft illustrates the incredible diversity of surface reflectivities and geological landforms on the dwarf planet. The image includes dark, ancient heavily cratered terrain; bright, smooth geologically young terrain; assembled masses of mountains; and an enigmatic field of dark, aligned ridges that resemble dunes; its origin is under debate. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. This image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI Fullscreen This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI Fullscreen Mosaic of high-resolution images of Pluto, sent back from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft from Sept. 5 to 7, 2015. The image is dominated by the informally-named icy plain Sputnik Planum, the smooth, bright region across the center. This image also features a tremendous variety of other landscapes surrounding Sputnik. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size, and the mosaic covers a region roughly 1,000 miles (1600 kilometers) wide. The image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI Fullscreen This image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, processed in two different ways, shows how Pluto’s bright, high-altitude atmospheric haze produces a twilight that softly illuminates the surface before sunrise and after sunset, allowing the sensitive cameras on New Horizons to see details in nighttime regions that would otherwise be invisible. The right-hand version of the image has been greatly brightened to bring out faint details of rugged haze-lit topography beyond Pluto’s terminator, which is the line separating day and night. The image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI Fullscreen Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this sharper global view of Pluto. NASA Fullscreen Pluto sends a breathtaking farewell to New Horizons. Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image, delivered to Earth on July 23, is displayed with north at the top of the frame. NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Fullscreen Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette in this image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. Hydrocarbon hazes in the atmosphere, extending as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) above the surface, are seen for the first time in this image, which was taken on July 14. NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Fullscreen New Horizons scientists use enhanced color images to detect differences in the composition and texture of Pluto’s surface. When close-up images are combined with color data from the Ralph instrument, it paints a new and surprising portrait of the dwarf planet. The “heart of the heart,” Sputnik Planum, is suggestive of a source region of ices. The two bluish-white “lobes” that extend to the southwest and northeast of the “heart” may represent exotic ices being transported away from Sputnik Planum. Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced color global view. The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers). Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI Fullscreen Pluto’s icy mountains have company. NASA’s New Horizons mission has discovered a new, apparently less lofty mountain range on the lower-left edge of Pluto’s best known feature. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI Fullscreen In the center left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature – informally named “Tombaugh Regio” - lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains and has been informally named Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), after Earth’s first artificial satellite. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly-shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs. NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI Fullscreen Peering closely at the “heart of Pluto,” in the western half of what mission scientists have informally named Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region), New Horizons’ Ralph instrument revealed evidence of carbon monoxide ice. The contours indicate that the concentration of frozen carbon monoxide increases towards the center of the “bull’s eye.” These data were acquired by the spacecraft on July 14 and transmitted to Earth on July 16. NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI Fullscreen The latest two full-frame images of Pluto and Charon were collected separately by New Horizons during approach on July 13 and July 14, 2015. The relative reflectivity, size, separation, and orientations of Pluto and Charon are approximated in this composite image, and they are shown in approximate true color. NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI Fullscreen Homing in on Pluto's small satellite Nix, New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager captured this image, which shows features as small as 4 miles (6 kilometers across). Mission scientists believe we are looking at one end of an elongated body about 25 miles (40 kilometers) in diameter. The image was acquired on July 13 from a distance of about 360,000 miles (590,000 kilometers). NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI Fullscreen Pluto's largest moon Charon has a captivating feature -- a depression with a peak in the middle, shown here in the upper left corner of the inset. The image shows an area approximately 240 miles (390 kilometers) from top to bottom, including few visible craters. The image was taken at approximately 6:30 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015, about 1.5 hours before closest approach to Pluto, from a range of 49,000 miles (79,000 kilometers). NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI Fullscreen New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains in this image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) NASA Fullscreen Remarkable new details of Pluto’s largest moon Charon are revealed in this image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). NASA Fullscreen The latest spectra from New Horizons Ralph instrument reveal an abundance of methane ice, but with striking differences from place to place across the frozen surface of Pluto. NASA Fullscreen Launched in January 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft set out to take the world's closest and most-detailed image of Pluto ever. NASA released this sneak-peek image on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. NASA via Instagram Fullscreen This July 13, 2015, image of Pluto and Charon is presented in false colors to make differences in surface material and features easy to see. It was obtained by the Ralph instrument on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, using three filters to obtain color information, which is exaggerated in the image. These are not the actual colors of Pluto and Charon, and the apparent distance between the two bodies has been reduced for this side-by-side view. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute Fullscreen Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, in July 2015. Handout Fullscreen This image released by NASA on July 11, 2015, shows Pluto, right, and moon Charon. EPA/NASA Fullscreen An illustration by artist Ron Miller depicts the moon Charon shining on the methane ice surface of Pluto. Eight years ago Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet. Ron Miller via NASA Fullscreen A Hubble Space Telescope image shows Pluto and three of its five moons, on Feb. 25, 2013. NASA via AP Fullscreen A painting by artist Dan Durda shows the planet Pluto in the foreground with a companion moon, Charon, rising against a starry background. Dan Durda via NASA Fullscreen An artist's illustration shows Pluto and its moon Charon, bottom right. NASA Observatorium Fullscreen The artist's painting shows the planet Pluto and its collection of moons as seen from the surface of one of the candidate moons. Pluto is the large object at center, right. G. Bacon, NASA/ESA Fullscreen A Feb. 4, 2010, collection of images from the Hubble Space Telescope shows Pluto in a dramatically ruddier color than just a few years ago. NASA scientists said the distant orb appears mottled and molasses-colored in recent pictures, with a markedly redder tone that most likely is the result of surface ice melting on the planet's sunlit pole and then refreezing on the other pole. NASA via AFP/Getty Images Fullscreen Images released by NASA on March 6, 1996, show the surface of the planet Pluto as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope's Faint Object Camera. The two smaller inset pictures at top are the actual Hubble images. Opposite hemispheres of Pluto are seen in the bottom images, which are from a global map constructed through computer image processing of the Hubble data. The picture was taken when Pluto was 3 billion miles from Earth. NASA via AP Fullscreen Like this topic? You may also like these photo galleries: Replay Autoplay Show Thumbnails Show Captions Last Slide Next Slide 14 CONNECT 30 TWEET LINKEDIN 2 COMMENT EMAIL MORE Read // TOP VIDEOS