Today, NASA released the highest resolution photos yet of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 14th, when the probe made its closest approach to the dwarf planet. The photos were recently downloaded to Earth on September 19th.
The first image combines blue, red, and infrared images taken by New Horizons' Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) to capture a region that is 330 miles across. In the photo, strange, rippling ridges dot Pluto's surface near the line that separates day from night. New Horizons deputy lead William McKinnon likened the ridges to "tree bark" or "dragon scales." The textured mountains have been temporarily nicknamed Tartarus Dorsa.
Pluto's mountain ridges look like "tree bark" or "dragon scales"
In addition, NASA released a new "extended color" photo of Pluto — also taken by the Ralph instrument on July 14th. In it, the colors have been greatly enhanced to help accentuate various landforms, like mountains and craters.
Another image of Pluto's surface — taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) imager — shows the dwarf planets geography in incredible detail. Features like dunes, icy mountains with sheer cliffs, and an ice lake can been seen in the photograph. The image also shows that the large heart-shaped region known as Sputnik Planum may not be as smooth as previously thought. It looks as though it's "pockmarked" with pits, ridges, and other textures.
The photos also demonstrate that methane, a chemical compound based off carbon, seems to be found in Pluto’s brighter areas. Sputnik Planum is abundant in methane ice — but its weird neighbor, the Cthulhu Regio, doesn’t have any. No one really knows why methane favors one region over the other.
- This new color-enhanced view of Pluto is the highest resolution look at the dwarf planet ever. The full version is more than 67 MB and stretches across tens of millions of pixels, so be sure to click and see it big.
- Pluto’s rugged terrain is shown in wild, “extended color” here, meaning the true color has been stretched to exaggerate the differences in surface makeup. The strange, round mountains shown are known (informally) as the Tartarus Dorsa. This image shows about 330 miles (530 kilometers) worth of these mountains, and it was taken by the color camera aboard New Horizons known as “RALPH.” You can view it in even higher resolution here.
- This stretched view is called a “cylindrical projection map,” and it’s the most detailed color map of Pluto ever made. It applies the color data from New Horizons’ RALPH camera to the higher-resolution LORRI camera images. That color has been enhanced to highlight differences in the surface. The (extremely) high resolution view can be seen here.
- This panorama was created with multiple images taken by just before New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14th, 2015. About 330 miles (530 kilometers) of Pluto’s surface is shown. On the left you can see craters, mountains, and dunes, while the right side of the picture is dominated by the icy expanses of Sputnik Planum. For the first time we see that Sputnik Planum is marred with pits and ridges, whereas in previous photos it appeared smooth. This can be seen better in the high-resolution version.
- This is just one frame of the above panorama, showing 75 miles (120 kilometers) of the surface of Pluto. In it we see two isolated ice mountains that stand alone in Sputnik Planum. You can see a higher-resolution version here.
- NASA also released new detail about the presence of methane on Pluto, made possible by this new map made from infrared spectroscopy. We see that Sputnik Planum is rich with methane, while the darker regions show almost none. NASA scientists aren’t sure if this is because methane is more likely to condense on the icy plains of Sputnik Planum or that the condensation of methane brightens those regions.