Pluto: New Horizons sends back the best images yet of a distant world

This movie is composed of the sharpest views of Pluto that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft obtained during its flyby on July 14, 2015.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the highest definition images of Pluto yet, and they are spectacular.

In the video above, the dwarf planet’s landscape is revealed in unprecedented detail, allowing viewers to peer into craters, examine the fine details of a distant mountain range and virtually glide over vast ice plains.

“These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto’s geology,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute said in a statement. “The science we can do with these images is simply unbelievable.”

The images seen here are part of a series of pictures that were taken on July 14, the day the spacecraft made its closest approach to the dwarf planet. However, they have only recently made it back to Earth as part of the mission’s long, slow, data download across 3 billion miles of space. 


The resolution on these pictures is about 250 to 280 feet per pixel. That means they are sharp enough that you can make out features that are less than half the size of a city block. 

The first part of the video takes the viewer across Pluto’s cratered plains, which reveal a wealth of information about the dwarf planet’s geology, scientists say. 

Craters on Pluto

A high-resolution image of craters on Pluto’s icy plains gives scientists a glimpse beneath the dwarf planet’s surface.

(NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute)

“Impact craters are nature’s drill rigs, and the new, high-resolution pictures of the bigger craters seem to show that Pluto’s icy crust, at least in places, is distinctly layered,” William McKinnon of Washington University in Saint Louis and deputy lead of the New Horizons imaging team said in a statement. 


The dark crater in the lower center of the image is probably younger than the others because its ejecta blanket — the dark material scattered around it — has not been erased yet.

About 20 seconds into the video, the topography begins to change and grow more rugged. The New Horizons team calls this portion of the dwarf planet “Pluto’s Badlands.”

‘Pluto’s Badlands’

A high-resolution image of “Pluto’s Badlands” was recently sent back to Earth from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

(NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute)

What we’re seeing here are the remains of great mountains of ice that have been worn down by the movements of nitrogen and other exotic glaciers, researchers say. The result is a landscape of rounded peaks and short ridges that have been shaped over time by erosion processes.

Around 35 seconds into the video we come to a truly mountainous region on Pluto’s surface, which has been informally named the al-Idrisi mountains.

Mountains and icy plains

A mountain range on Pluto ends abruptly at the shoreline of the informally named “Sputnik Planum” on Pluto. 

(NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute)

Researchers say these mountains also are made of ice, and the tallest stand as much as 1.5 miles high. At the base of the mountains is a remarkably level ice plain called “Sputnik Planum.” According to the New Horizons team, the textured surface of the plain’s ices could be related to the sublimation of ice that has been exposed to sunlight.

Clearly there is more to learn and be understood, but for now, you can find preliminary information about this first batch of high-resolution images on NASA’s New Horizons website. You also can expect to see more high-resolution images from the flyby in the next few days and weeks. 


The spacecraft still has plenty more data to send back to Earth. 

Science rules! Follow me @DeborahNetburn and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.


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