New Horizons, the first spacecraft to ever reach Pluto, has sent back a fascinating new image of the dwarf planet’s surface.
The picture, which was transmitted to Earth on Chrimstmas Eve from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), shows a snail-like object appearing to ‘slide’ through the planet’s surface.
NASA experts believe the object may be a ‘dirty block of water ice’ floating in denser solid nitrogen after being dragged to the edge of a convection cell.
The picture extends the highest-resolution views of Pluto captured by New Horizons to the very centre of Sputnik Planum – the informal name given to to the icy plain that forms the left side of Pluto’s distinctive heart-shaped feature.
Meanwhile, another recently transmitted image shows the planet’s bizarrely textured mountains.
William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team deputy lead from Washington University, said: “‘It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles.
“It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology.”
NASA has also revealed a sequence of new images taken 15 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14.
A composite of Pluto’s ‘Viking Terra’ region, created using images from LORRI and enhanced colour data from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) show the mysterious ‘pits’ on the ‘heart’ of Pluto in unprecedented detail, along with colour images of the planet’s ‘badlands’.
Scientists believe these pits may form through a combination of ice fracturing and evaporation.
Another image again uses images and colours data from LORRI and MVIC to offer an insight into the surface of Pluto in incredibly sharp detail.
Meanwhile, one high resolution image reveals new details of Pluto’s rugged, icy cratered plains – showing details such as ice blocks and craters which are actually less than half the size of a city block.
In a statement, NASA said: ‘The wide variety of cratered, mountainous and glacial terrains seen here gives scientists and the public alike a breathtaking, super-high-resolution colour window into Pluto’s geology,’ Nasa said.
John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and associate administrator for Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate, added:
“These close-up images, showing the diversity of terrain on Pluto, demonstrate the power of our robotic planetary explorers to return intriguing data to scientists back here on planet Earth.
“New Horizons thrilled us during the July flyby with the first close images of Pluto, and as the spacecraft transmits the treasure trove of images in its onboard memory back to us, we continue to be amazed by what we see.”