A liquid ocean lying deep beneath Pluto’s frozen surface is the best explanation for features revealed by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, according to a new analysis. The idea that Pluto has a subsurface ocean is not new, but the study provides the most detailed investigation yet of its likely role in the evolution of key features such as the vast, low-lying plain known as Sputnik Planitia (formerly Sputnik Planum).
What is the origin of the large heart-shaped nitrogen glacier on Pluto revealed by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015? Two French researchers show that Pluto’s peculiar insolation and atmosphere favour nitrogen condensation near the equator, in the lower altitude regions, leading to an accumulation of ice at the bottom of Sputnik Planum, a vast topographic basin.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took this stunning image mere minutes after closest approach on 14 July 2015. Seen here, sunlight filters through and illuminates Pluto’s complex atmospheric haze layers over portions of the nitrogen ice plains informally named Sputnik Planum, as well as mountains of the informally named Norgay Montes.
This feature appears to be a frozen, former lake of liquid nitrogen, located in a mountain range just north of Pluto’s informally named Sputnik Planum. Captured by the New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) as the spacecraft flew past Pluto on 14 July 2015, the image shows the possible lake to be about 20 miles (30 kilometres) across.
Far in the dwarf planet’s western hemisphere, scientists on NASA’s New Horizons mission have discovered what looks like a giant “bite mark” on Pluto’s surface. They suspect that the methane ice-rich surface on Pluto may be sublimating away into the atmosphere, exposing a layer of water-ice underneath.
NASA’s New Horizons team has discovered a chain of exotic snowcapped mountains stretching across the dark expanse on Pluto informally named Cthulhu Regio. One of the dwarf planet’s most identifiable features, Cthulhu (pronounced kuh-THU-lu) is a bit larger than the state of Alaska and stretches nearly halfway around Pluto’s equator.
To help mission scientists understand the diversity of Pluto’s terrain and to piece together how the dwarf planet’s surface has formed and evolved over time, NASA’s New Horizons mission scientists have started constructing geological maps. The base map for this interpretation is a mosaic of 12 images obtained by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).
The nitrogen ice glaciers on Pluto appear to carry an intriguing cargo: numerous, isolated hills that may be fragments of water ice from Pluto’s surrounding uplands. Since water ice is less dense than nitrogen-dominated ice, scientists believe these water ice hills are floating in a sea of frozen nitrogen and move over time like icebergs in Earth’s Arctic Ocean.
Data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft point to more prevalent water ice on Pluto’s surface than previously thought. Water ice is Pluto’s crustal “bedrock,” the canvas on which its more volatile ices paint their seasonally changing patterns. The new false-colour image is derived from observations in infrared light by the probe’s Ralph/Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array.
“X” marks the spot of some intriguing surface activity in the latest picture of Pluto returned from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. This image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) extends New Horizons’ highest-resolution views of Pluto to the very centre of Sputnik Planum, the informally named icy plain that forms the left side of Pluto’s “heart” feature.