See New Horizons' striking new panoramic images of Pluto

Contributed by
Sep 18, 2015, 5:08 PM EDT

As promised, NASA's New Horizons' team has delivered its weekly package of images downlinked from 3 billion miles away, and it's a stunner!  Check out these sensational backlit panorama photos of the glowing crescent of Pluto, displaying the majestic mountains, icy expanses and fog-enveloped surface of the former ninth planet.  They were captured by the craft's wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) from a distance of 11,000 miles and downlinked to Earth on Sept. 13 for processing.


Fifteen minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, the spacecraft peered back toward the sun, allowing its cameras to catch this sunset view of the rugged highlands and frozen plains extending out to Pluto’s horizon. The smooth expanse of Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by ominous mountains rising more than 11,000 feet high.  East of Sputnik, rougher terrain is sliced by apparent active glaciers. The dramatic backlighting highlights dozens of layers of haze in Pluto’s fragile and ethereal atmosphere.


“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. “But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.”


Combined with NASA's other recently downloaded pictures, this new composite image also provides major evidence for an Earth-like “hydrological” cycle on Pluto – but one involving soft and exotic ices, including nitrogen, rather than H2O ice in its glacial flow patterns. This New Horizons' panorama also reveals glaciers flowing back into Sputnik Planum from the heavily blanketed region to the east, revealing features similar to the frozen streams on the edges of ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica.


"We did not expect to find hints of a nitrogen-based glacial cycle on Pluto operating in the frigid conditions of the outer solar system,” said Alan Howard, a member of the mission’s Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team. “Driven by dim sunlight, this would be directly comparable to the hydrological cycle that feeds ice caps on Earth, where water is evaporated from the oceans, falls as snow, and returns to the seas through glacial flow.”

Are you still slack-jawed at these stunning new images of Pluto or already over it?

(Via NASA/New Horizons)