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New Horizons craft sends new photos of Pluto's surface, including 'tail'

By Doug G. Ware
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New Horizons craft sends new photos of Pluto's surface, including 'tail'
This annotated view of a portion of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), named for Earth’s first artificial satellite, shows an array of enigmatic features. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs, some of which contain darker materials. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. The blocky appearance of some features is due to compression of the image. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

WASHINGTON, July 19 (UPI) -- NASA's New Horizons space probe has transmitted new images that depict the surface of Pluto in great detail -- and include what looks like a tail coming from the dwarf planet's atmosphere.

The new findings were detailed in a news conference Sunday by Jim Green, the director of Planetary Science at NASA, Christian Science Monitor reported Sunday. Items of note include what appears to be a cracked, icy surface and the mysterious tail.

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"I'm a little biased, but I think the Solar System saved the best for last!" he said.

The first new image relayed from the space probe was an image of Pluto's moon, Nix. The image was a relatively low resolution photo, but scientists said despite that fact, the image was twice as good as any previously taken by the Hubble telescope.

RELATED NASA releases new data, pictures from Pluto flyby

Another image shed some light on a rather perplexing mystery: the bright, heart-shaped region on Pluto, informally called Tombaugh Regio. Scientists said measurements taken by New Horizons revealed high levels of carbon monoxide there -- the only place on the entire dwarf planet with such a high concentration of the gas.

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"The landscape is just astoundingly amazing," New Horizons leader Jeff Moore said. "Some regions have no craters at all ... It shows that geological processes are happening up to the present time."

RELATED GALLERY: NASA's New Horizons Team watches the Pluto flyby

The "tail" observed by scientists is believed to be a trail of escaping nitrogen-rich atmosphere -- 500 tons of which are escaping every hour. By contrast, Mars' atmosphere only releases 1 ton per hour.

RELATED NASA releases first historic Pluto flyby images

The cold, dense tail is formed by the ionized gas that stretches for about 1,000 miles, scientists said.

The photos, taken Saturday, were the last that will come from New Horizons. The probe flew by Pluto on July 14 and has sent numerous photos and data back to scientists on Earth.

Now flying away from Pluto, the New Horizons probe will continue on to explore another object located in the Kuiper belt. Launched in 2006, it has so far traveled more than three billion miles, NASA said.

RELATED Photograph from NASA probe shows new details of Pluto surface

Scientists have been surprised by the data they have received so far. Many previously believed Pluto was a rather inert rock surrounded by ice and gas. However, the New Horizons mission, though, has delivered evidence that it is far more active than previously believed.

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