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NASA’s New Horizons Spots Pluto Surface Features Including Possible Polar Ice Cap

Image credit: New Horizon image of Pluto and Charon via NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

Image credit: New Horizon image of Pluto and Charon via NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

Some photos of Pluto have been sent back to earth by New Horizons, the amazing space explorer launched by NASA as it is flying much near to this planet. Although such photos are captured with just a few pixels in resolution, they actually offer more information about Pluto than previously done.

In the following picture, you can see that the largest circle is Pluto itself, while the smaller dot turns to be is Charon, the biggest moon of Pluto. It seems that the photo might not be so remarkable; in fact, it does uncover mysteries concerning the appearance of this dwarf planet.

It should be particularly noted that there are areas of light and dark on Pluto. It is thought by NASA’s researchers that the bright region at 3 o’clock could be a polar cap. No matter how the planet rotates, this area is always brighter. As Alan Stern, who was leading investigator on the mission, said, it was quite suspiciously suggestive.

In the speculation of researchers, this should be nitrogen ice rather than water ice commonly seen on the polar caps on our earth. The reason is that based on telescopic observations of Pluto, it is suggested that there is a thin atmosphere made of nitrogen over the planet.

According to Stern’s explanation, it was unusual to find that any planet in the Solar System at such low resolution reveal so obvious surface markings. Compared with what was known about Pluto from the released photo, even if with similar images of Mercury or even Mars, it would be difficult to observe the same kinds of big surface units. Therefore, it could be much promising for the imagery when scientists tried to get closer to the planet

Thanks to the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI camera, these photographs have been captured. Its photograph exposure was only 1/10 of a second, which was not long enough to observe Pluto’s four smaller moons in orbit. However, this camera is still trying harder to be ready for the biggest performance of its life that would begin on May 28th, 2015. At this time, LORRI will take photos of Pluto each day as New Horizons goes much closer to the dwarf planet.

The nearest photos will be sent back on July 14, 2015. With all the photos uploaded then, people can find Pluto alongside New Horizons. Unluckily, as the space explorer is moving too rapidly to enter Pluto’s orbit, it would be the only chance for it to snap fine pictures.

It has certainly been a long time to wait for such amazing photos since the launching of New Horizons nine years ago. At present, the space craft is only 13 million kilometers away from Pluto, and 5 billion kilometers away from Earth for comparison.

In the eyes of John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, when New Horizons gets closer to Pluto, with more data collected from it, scientists are becoming more excited to find more about the mysteries of Pluto.

KHMVmcoImages of Charon’s orbit around Pluto via NASA

Images of Charon’s orbit around Pluto via NASA