After mountain ranges and vast frozen plains, the US probe New Horizons sent new images showing vapors in Pluto’s atmosphere and signs of nitrogen ice movement and methane on its surface.
“Ten days after the flyover closer to Pluto we can say that our expectations were more than exceeded”, welcomed Friday John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s science missions.
“With moving ice, an original chemical composition of its surface, its mountain ranges and its mists, Pluto reveals a very exciting geological diversity,” he told a press conference.
Seven hours after passing closer to Pluto on July 14, New Horizons has robbed an optical instrument on the dwarf planet, which allowed to capture the sun’s rays passing through its atmosphere.
The images show the vapors rising up to 130 km above the surface. Preliminary analysis indicates two distinct layers, one at about 80 km altitude and the other some 50 km.
“These vapors are a key element to create complex hydrocarbon components that give the surface of Pluto its reddish color,” said Michael Summers, an astronomer at the mission.
Latest images from New Horizons also reveal signs of ice movement on the surface of Pluto sign of recent geological activity -a few tens of million-years on the planet, what surprised the scientists.
In the north of a vast plain called “Sputnik Planum” the size of Texas, they saw very clear indications of movements of a methane ice sheet, nitrogen or carbon monoxide which this area is rich. These movements might occur now, according to the researchers.
“Such phenomena are similar to those observed on Earth with glaciers,” noted Bill McKinnon, another scientist from New Horizons.
“In the most south of the heart-shaped area portion, adjacent to the equatorial zone that is dark and apparently oldest with many craters, it seems that the ice deposits are much more recent,” a-t- he also noted.
“All activities observed on Pluto suggest that this planet has a dense core surrounded by a thick layer of ice, which increases the possibility of the existence of a liquid ocean under the ice,” according to Bill McKinnon.
New Horizons will continue to transmit data collected until the end of 2016. It is currently at 12.2 million kilometers beyond Pluto and is sinking into the Kuiper Belt.