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."
- The New Horizons spacecraft took this panorama just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14th, 2015. It’s essentially a sunset on Pluto, and that back-lighting helps us see the icy mountains and flat ice plains that extend to Pluto’s horizon, as well as the haze in its atmosphere.
- This is a closer look at the mountains of Pluto, some of which extend as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high. The scene you see here is is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across.
- That “setting” sun also illuminated what looks like fog or haze in this photo, which you can see the shadows of hills and mountains cutting through in this photo.
- Here we see Sputnik Planum, the icy plains region of Pluto. The highlighted inset is shown in greater detail in the images below.
- This newer view of Pluto shows the edges of Sputnik Planum, including evidence of what appear to be glaciers.
- The New Horizons team did not expect to find a nitrogen-based glacial cycle on Pluto, but there is strong evidence for one here, and it is likely caused by the dim sunlight the dwarf planet bathes in. That’s similar to the hydrological cycle that feeds ice caps on Earth.
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