New Horizons released a fresh batch of photographs from its collection today, and I’m in love all over again. Bask in the glory of a hazy dusk, then join me to dive into the awesome new science of weather on Pluto.
This gorgeous oblique panorama was captured by the New Horizons spacecraft from 18,000 kilometers (11,00 miles) away, just 15 minutes after the probe’s closest approach on July 14, 2015. Hillary Montes are on the western (left) skyline, with Norgay Montes in the central foreground and the frozen Sputnik Planum to the east (right). Even farther east is a rough terrain chewed up by suspected glaciers. (The names are still informal, but it helps to have something to discuss them with other than “the taller mountains” and “the shorter mountains.”) The entire scene is just 1,250 kilometers (780 miles) wide: the tallest mountains poke 3,500 meters (11,000 feet) high into the complex layered haze of Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere.
The rugged mountains to the west are Norgay Montes (stretching 3,500 meters tall) in the foreground and Hillary Montes (shorter at 1,500 meters tall) with Sputnik Planum to the east. The scene is 380 kilometers (230 miles) across. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The backlighting of a setting sun catches details in Pluto’s nitrogen atmosphere, revealing at least a dozen layers extending over 100 kilometers (60 miles) above the dwarf planet’s surface.
Dusk highlights fog, a near-surface haze cut by shadows of hills and small mountains. The image is 185 kilometers (115 miles) across. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The new photographs also reveal our first peek at Pluto’s fog, low-laying haze snuggling into valleys between mountains. This is our first indication that Pluto has weather, and that the weather changes on a daily basis.
The New Horizons spacecraft started its main data downlink earlier this month, and will continue sending data home into the autumn of 2016. It will be making trajectory corrections in October to redirect for a hopefully-to-be-funded flyby of another Kuiper Belt Object in January 2019.
Top image: Pluto 15 minutes after closest-approach on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI