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New panoramic photos show off Pluto's grand icy mountains and atmosphere

NASA has just released a panoramic image of Pluto's crescent taken by the New Horizons spacecraft — and the scene is absolutely incredible. The photograph showcases the dwarf planet's icy mountains in amazing detail, as backlighting from the Sun shines through the world's hazy atmosphere.

The picture was taken by New Horizons' wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera on July 14th, as the spacecraft flew by Pluto. However, the data for the image wasn't received on Earth until recently on September 13th. The picture captures a part of Sputnik Planum — the informal name given to Pluto's large heart region — as well as some of the mountain ranges surrounding the area. It's a region that covers 780 miles across.

"This image is a scientific bonanza."
"This image is a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains," said New Horizons team leader Alan Stern in a statement. The Ralph image indicates that Pluto has an Earth-like "hydrological cycle," meaning ices on its surface evaporate, condense, and precipitate. But unlike on Earth, this cycle involves exotic ices made of nitrogen — not water. Stern says dim sunlight causes the nitrogen to evaporate from Sputnik Planum and then fall back down as snow in the mountains nearby. The ice then returns to the Planum through glacier flow.
NASA says the backlighting from the Sun in the Ralph image also reveals a ton about Pluto's huge nitrogen atmosphere, which is thought to extend 1,000 miles into space. The image shows many different layers of haze that reach up to 60 miles above the ground. There's also a low-lying bank of fog hovering over one of the darker portions of the photograph. This means that Pluto's weather probably changes day by day, just as it does here on Earth.
This image is only one of many spectacular views of Pluto we're about to get. NASA is set to release even more photos from New Horizons over the coming weeks, so stay tuned for more close-up scenes from this icy dwarf planet.

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