Washington: NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has returned new close-up images of Pluto to the Earth that show an amazing range of features on the planet's surface and in its atmosphere.
The incredible images reveal a bewildering variety of surface features that have scientists reeling because of their range and complexity, says NASA in a release.
“Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern
“If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top - but that’s what is actually there.”
These are first from New Horizons year-long download of high resolution images. New Horizons began its year-long download of new images and other data over the Labor Day weekend.
According to NASA, images downlinked in the past few days have more than doubled the amount of Pluto’s surface seen at resolutions as good as 400 meters (440 yards) per pixel.
They reveal new features as diverse as possible dunes, nitrogen ice flows that apparently oozed out of mountainous regions onto plains, and even networks of valleys that may have been carved by material flowing over Pluto’s surface.
They also show large regions that display chaotically jumbled mountains reminiscent of disrupted terrains on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.
“The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
“The randomly jumbled mountains might be huge blocks of hard water ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the region informally named Sputnik Planum.”
New images also show the most heavily cratered -- and thus oldest -- terrain yet seen by New Horizons on Pluto next to the youngest, most crater-free icy plains. There might even be a field of dark wind-blown dunes, among other possibilities, added NASA.
The New Horizons spacecraft is now more than 3 billion miles (about 5 billion kilometers) from Earth, and more than 43 million miles (69 million kilometers) beyond Pluto. NASA says the spacecraft is healthy and all systems are operating normally.
The images were taken when the probe whizzed past Pluto on July 14, 2015, coming within 7,800 miles of the icy planet's surface. New Horizons spacecraft became the first-ever space mission to explore the icy planet.
You can see all the latest imagery of the icy planet on NASA's official website as the team will be adding and posting new images sent back from New Horizons every Friday.