Pluto Is Still Extremely Weird in the Latest Image From NASA

Illustration for article titled Pluto Is Still Extremely Weird in the Latest Image From NASA

NASA has released a new image of Pluto’s Tartarus Dorsa, the ‘bladed’ region to the east of the heart-shaped formation known as the Tombaugh Region. The 3D image reminds us of how weird the dwarf planet is.


You can use regular 3D glasses to take a look at the image, which shows off terrain unlike anything we’ve found in all of our exploration of the solar system:

The blades are the dominant feature of a broad area informally named Tartarus Dorsa. They align from north to south, reach hundreds of feet high and are typically spaced a few miles apart. This remarkable landform, unlike any other seen in our solar system, is perched on a much broader set of rounded ridges that are separated by flat valley floors.

The Bladed Terrain of Tartarus Dorsa. Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The Bladed Terrain of Tartarus Dorsa. Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto’s ‘snakeskin’ terrain has baffled astronomers ever since we first got a good glimpse of it back in September. A couple of weeks ago, astronomer Orkan Umurhan theorized in a blog post that the methane ice could be responsible for the steep structures:

The answer is a meek “maybe.” To date, there are only two known published studies examining the rheological properties (i.e., how much a material deforms when stresses are applied to it) of methane ice in the extreme temperature range of Pluto—a bitterly cold -300 to -400 degrees Fahrenheit. According to one study, the answer is a definite ‘no,’ because methane ice of those dimensions would flatten out in a matter of decades. Yet in another study, methane ice may maintain such a steepened structure if the individual CH4 ice grains constituting the collective ice are large enough. Which study is right? Or is there a way to reconcile them? This is something we simply do not know at the moment.

The 3D picture was taken at a distance of one million miles and combines two images from New Horizon’s Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera.



Andrew Liptak is the former Weekend editor of io9/Gizmodo. He is the co-editor of War Stories: New Military Science Fiction and hails from Vermont.

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Christian Corralejo

This may be a huge stretch but it would be amazing if it turns out that these weird structures are created by life as we do not know it, even in microbial form.