A fresh batch of images straight from the New Horizons downlink give us just what we’ve been waiting for: color views of Pluto! Ridiculously high resolution detail! Strange new snakeskin textures! Plus a first look at how methane is involved in shaping these crazy ice landscapes.

These new images from NASA’s deep space probe mean we’re going to need to write yet another chapter in the evolving saga of confusing geomorphology on the wee dwarf planet. Here’s what we’ve just gotten:

“Extended Color” Images


After weeks of beautiful but greyscale images with an occasional blurry smear of color, we’re finally getting high-resolution color in our view of Pluto. The images are all extended color, which means they are incorporating infrared light beyond the visible spectrum that you would see with your naked eye. Geology, Geophysics and Imaging deputy lead John Spencer explains:Cylindrical projection map of Pluto in enhanced extended colour using red, blue, and near-infrared filters. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto’s surface colors were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode.


The extended colors use blue, red, and near infrared filters. The colors are also enhanced to increase saturation, and make otherwise subtle changes easier to see.

A subtle swirl of colors near an icy shoreline that would be unnoticeable without color enhancement. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via Alex Parker

The glorious, whole-world single-frame shot is tens of millions of pixels of exquisite detail. With features visible just 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) across, the rest of today is officially a lost cause to get anything done that doesn’t involve scrolling around ogling craters and whispering gleefully over fine lineaments.Download the full resolution 67.5MB version here and tell us about your discoveries!


Getting this image wasn’t easy—since the two instruments used to make it took images from different angles, imaging team scientist Alex Parker had to go in and carefully stretch and warp every mountain to line up the colours with the detailed photograph. By the end of the week-long process, he was tired enough to be batting at pixels with exhausted cat-.gifs.

Strange New “Snakeskin” Textures


Extended colour view of Tartarus Dorsa along the day-night terminator boundary. The view is 530 kilometrs (330 miles) across to a resolution of 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) for the smallest features of this enhanced, extended colour image. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The New Horizons science team is nicknaming these fields of rippling hills overlain with finely-detailed linear ridges as a “snakeskin” texture. In extended colour, the ridges are blue-grey and the valleys between are more reddish.

The oddly-textured mountains are named Tartarus Dorsa. All ridges (dorsa) on Pluto are named for underworlds or specific locations within underworlds: Tartarus is the place where souls are judged, described in the Iliad as located “as far beneath Hades as Heaven is high above the Earth.”


The Geology, Geophysics and Imaging deputy lead William McKinnon has a more fanciful description, “It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology.” before admitting that their formation is even more perplexing than usual for the strange little world: “This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.”

Where Mountains Meet Plains


Sputnik Planum in better detail than ever before. The view is 530 kilometrs (330 miles) across to a resolution of 250 meters (810 feet) for the smallest features of this enhanced, extended colour image. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

We are and always will be fascinated by the diverse, dramatic texture differences on Pluto. This morning we wrote about this very boundary between the fresh, young Sputnik Planum and the sharper, older, more rugged terrain that embraces it, but now we can see those same landscapes in far better detail.


From terrestrial analogy, this new view looks like a frozen, creeping lake of glaciers is splashing up against a shoreline of ice mountains with sheer cliffs.

The boundary between mountains and plains looks eerily like ice blocks crumbling into a cracked, frozen ocean. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The suspected dunes are even clearer now, and odd linear features and possible gullies pop out in the extended, enhanced color.


A close-up view of Sputnik Planum reveals heavily pitted ice, low ridges, and swooping scallops surrounding an ice mountain. The view is 120 kilometrs (75 miles) across to a resolution of 270 meters (885 feet) for the smallest features of this enhanced, extended colour image. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Now we can see these relatively smooth icy plains in incredibly detail, they’re getting even more interesting. The odd polygonal textures are still present, but the pitting is even more prevalent than we originally suspected. While all interpretation is very tentative at this stage, the sublimation of ice from solid directly to gas could create this weirdly etched surface.


Layers of craters pound through the almost-soft looking surface, sliced through with cutting linear features. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The ridges and scallops are a whole different set of mysterious geomorphology. Those could be dunes, leading to the question of how something as tenuous as Pluto’s atmosphere could have winds strong enough to transport sediment. Or they could be landforms created by the complex thermodynamics of sublimation and reformation of ice, or a strange tectonic feature wrinkling the surface, or something else we haven’t even thought of yet.


Mapping Methane, and the Lack Thereof

Spectrometric map of methane distributions on Pluto: purple marks higher abundances of methane, and black marks lower abundances. Data has thus far only been downlinked for a small portion of the world. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI


We knew the many ices of Pluto couldn’t be pure nitrogen, and that methane distribution varied dramatically across the world, but now we can see what’s happening in greater detail.

Sputnik Planum was already strange for being home to the one unique bulge in carbon monoxide concentrations, but now we’ve learned it’s also rich in methane. This is in sharp contrast to the surrounding older, more rugged regions. The dark, heavily cratered Cthulhu Regio to the immediate south of the plains is near-absent of methane except for a few isolated ridges and rims, as are the mountains flanking the western boundary.

Outside of Sputnik Planum, methane seems to favour crater rims while avoiding the bowls, and concentrate in bright plains while avoiding darker regions. But it’s hard to know which way the causation goes.


Are these areas brighter because they’re coated in fresh, bright methane ice, or is the ice more likely to condense in those brighter regions?

A crater with bright walls cut by chasms, with a strange rivulet of infilling material in a contrasting colour. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via Alex Parker


Any way about it, we’re suddenly looking at frozen seas of methane on the far edge of the solar system. This is incredible.

The New Horizons deep space explorer made a flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons with its closest approach on July 14, 2015. It collected so much data it will take until next autumn to send it all home; we’re the barest fraction of the way into even learning what questions to ask about the bizarre little world. Meanwhile, the spacecraft is preparing for a trajectory correction to make a flyby of the Kuiper Belt Object MU69 in January 2019.

Oh, Pluto. You’re never going to stop surprising us, are you?


Top image: Pluto in enhanced, extended colour combining blue, red, and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera on the New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. Features as small as 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) across can be resolved. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.