New Horizons Discovers Flowing Ice On Pluto


Pluto is an icy world of wonders that keeps surprising astronomers. Scientists at NASA were surprised to discover flowing ice and an extended haze on the dwarf planet based on data sent by New Horizons. Flowing ice is a major similarity between Pluto and active worlds like Earth and Mars, NASA said in a statement.

Pluto shows signs of geological activity

Images captured by Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) revealed exotic ice flowing across the dwarf planet’s surface. It also revealed signs of recent geological activity. Within the Texas-size plain Sputnik Planum, which is located on the western part of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature called Tombaugh Regio, a sheet of ice appears to be flowing. The ice flow is pretty similar to glaciers on Earth.

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What’s more, data provided by New Horizons’ Ralph instrument shows that the center of Sputnik Planum is rich in carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and methane ices. Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team, said these ices flow like a glacier at Pluto’s minus 390 degrees Fahrenheit temperature.

New Horizons captures stunning hazes

Another major discovery was the extended haze. About seven hours after its closest flyby of Pluto, New Horizons turned LORRI back at Pluto, taking images of sunlight streaming through the dwarf planet’s atmosphere. The photos revealed hazes as high has 130 km above the dwarf planet’s surface. Astronomers had previously estimated that Pluto’s temperatures would be too warm to form hazes at altitudes higher than 30 km from Pluto’s surface.

Michael Summers, New Horizons co-investigator at George Mason University, said the hazes were key to creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto its characteristic reddish hue. These hazes form when the UV sunlight breaks up methane particles present in Pluto’s atmosphere. Methane’s breakdown causes the buildup of even more complex hydrocarbons like Acetylene and Ethylene. These hydrocarbons then condense into ice particles that create the hazes.

New Horizons will continue to set data back to Earth through late 2016. Expect some more surprises.