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What Have We Learned About Pluto?

What Have We Learned About Pluto?

Earlier this year on July 14, our New Horizons spacecraft successfully flew by Pluto. During this encounter, it collected more than 1,200 images of the dwarf planet and tens of gigabits of data. The intensive downlinking of this information began on Sept. 5, and will continue for around a year. With the information being returned for the duration of a year, we still have a lot more to learn about Pluto. Here are a few things we’ve discovered so far:

Pluto’s Heart

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An image captured by New Horizons around 16 hours before closest approach displays Pluto’s “heart”. This stunning image of one of the planet’s most dominate features shows us that the heart’s diameter is about the same distance as from Denver to Chicago. This image also showed us that Pluto is a complex world with incredible geological diversity.

Icy Plains

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Pluto’s vast icy plain, informally called Sputnik Planum, resembles frozen mud cracks on Earth. It has a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs. In other areas, the surface appears to be etched by fields of small pits that may have formed by a process called sublimation, which is when ice turns directly from solid to gas, just as dry ice does on Earth. 

Majestic Mountains

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Images from the spacecraft display chaotically jumbled mountains that only add to the complexity of Pluto’s geography. The rugged, icy mountains are as tall as 11,000 feet high.

Color Variations

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This high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto combines, blue red and infrared images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. The surface of the dwarf planet has a remarkable range of subtle color variations. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story of the planet.

Foggy Haze and Blue Atmosphere

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Images returned from the New Horizons spacecraft have also revealed that Pluto’s global atmospheric haze has many more layers than scientists realized. The haze even creates a twilight effect that softly illuminates nightside terrain near sunset, which makes them visible to the cameras aboard the spacecraft. Today, a new announcement was made about Pluto’s atmosphere after the most recent image returned from New Horizons showed that Pluto’s hazes are blue. The haze particles themselves are likely gray or red, but they way they scatter blue light has created this tint.

Water Ice

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In another finding announced today, New Horizons has detected numerous small, exposed regions of water ice on Pluto. Scientists are eager to understand why water appears exactly where it does, and not in other places.

Stay updated on New Horizons findings by visiting the New Horizons page. You can also keep track of Pluto News on the New Horizons Blog. 

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