Pluto Update: Mountains, Moats, and Methane

New images from space missions are often slow to be released. The Deep Space Network isn’t exactly broadband, and they have to process the images to make them look presentable. But we still have a few new shots of Pluto and it’s moons from New Horizons over the past week.

Mosaic image of the mountains in Pluto’s Tombaugh Regio. Credit: NASA. Click to embiggen.

That is a close-up of the southwest part of Tombaugh Regio, also known as “the Heart”. You’ll definitely want to click to see the full-size version. We see two mountain ranges, one in the north and one in the south, both the equal of the American Rockies–which appear to be plateaus of water ice sticking up about the crust. To the east are plains of bright carbon monoxide ice, while to the west are dark, cratered lowlands, probably covered with methane ice and tar.

Hubble Space Telescope images of Pluto taken in 1996.

I’ll note that despite being covered with volatile carbon monoxide ice, which melts at 68 kelvin (9 degrees colder than liquid nitrogen), it’s actually a long lived feature, visible in Hubble Space Telescope images as far back as 1996. It’s kind of hard to tell, but it’s the bright spot on the left said of the right-hand frame.

Close-up of Pluto's large moon, Charon. Credit: NASA.

Close-up of Pluto’s large moon, Charon.

Astronomers got a big surprise when they took a close look at Pluto’s big moon, Charon. That’s a mountain that appears to be surrounded by a moat. Nobody really knows what it is. My guess is that it’s some kind of weird volcano or some kind of weird crater–or maybe both on top of each other.

The best current images of Nix and Hydra.

The best current images of Nix and Hydra.

These are two of Pluto’s small moons, Nix (left) and Hydra (right). Nix is distinctly red, which, again, is probably due to methane-based tar on the surface. Hydra has a lopsided, comet-like shape, much like Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, as seen by ESA’s Rosetta mission.


About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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