When New Horizons made its close pass pf Pluto on July 14, 2015, it did much more than just take pretty pictures; it was also scanning the planet with a suite of science instruments designed to determine the nature of its surface, atmosphere, composition, and other key characteristics. One of these instruments was the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), an infrared scanner that can detect the unique molecular “fingerprints” of particular elements and compounds like methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide… and water (one of our favorites!)
At first the data returned from LEISA showed only a surprisingly small amount of water ice across Pluto’s surface. But that was water ice in its pure form; when researchers took into consideration ice containing a mixture of water and other materials they found a much more widespread distribution across the surface area visible to New Horizons.
An image like this could only be captured by an observer who’d traveled the 3.2 billion miles to take it beyond the orbit of Pluto! Luckily for us, in July 2015 we had exactly that: the New Horizons spacecraft, which had spent the previous nine and a half years soaring across the Solar System.
This bumpy wrinkled pucker is actually an enormous ice volcano — i.e., a cryovolcano — on the surface of Pluto, imaged by the passing New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. Informally called Wright Mons, the feature is about 90 miles (150 km) across and 2.5 miles (4 km) high, about as high as some of the tallest Alps. The entire volcanic mountain spans an area half the width of the state of Massachusetts!
See the region in context on a global view of Pluto below:
If you’ve been waiting and dreaming for more high-resolution images of Pluto, the stars are now right: there’s a new mosaic from New Horizons out that snakes across the dwarf planet’s rugged (and notably non-Euclidean) surface, displaying many types of fascinating terrain: craters, pits, jumbled ice mounds, and the edges of a large dark region dubbed “Cthulhu” after the tentacled elder god of H.P. Lovecraft fame. Ia! Ia!
Now over four months after the historic and long-awaited flyby of Pluto by New Horizons, planetary scientists have had a steady stream of unprecedented data arriving on Earth from the outwardly-speeding spacecraft. We’ve learned more about Pluto in the past few months than we had over the decades before and the information is still being analyzed — and is still coming. This surprising little world and its strange family of mismatched moons, 33 times farther from the Sun than us, has become in the latter half of 2015 the scientific “star of the Solar System.” (Take that all you can’t-be-a-planet folks!)
“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the Solar System. Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”
– Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, SwRI
At the beginning of September the world was treated to a fantastic view of the night side of Pluto, captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it departed the distant icy world on July 14, 2015. Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s surprisingly complex atmospheric haze created a ghostly glow above its crescent-lit limb while frozen mountains cast reflected light upon neighboring Plutonian peaks.
On Thursday, NASA released an update to that image showing a more complete view of Pluto in its backlit glory, created from more high-resolution images that continue to stream in from the Kuiper Belt-bound spacecraft, over three billion miles away.