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Best Pluto Photos From New Horizon on the Way, Imagery Reveal 'Over the Top' Diversity, Complexity

( [email protected] ) Sep 14, 2015 07:03 PM EDT
Ultra HD photos of Pluto reveal a geography that is surprisingly diverse complex. These images were transmitted by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft that is currently orbiting the distant microplanet.
Credit: NASA

Ultra HD photos of Pluto reveal a geography that is surprisingly diverse complex - including a maze of mountains, valleys, dunes, ice flows and craters. These images were transmitted by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft that is currently orbiting the distant microplanet.

"Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of process that rival anything we've seen in the solar system," New Horizons' principal investigator Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, said in a statement to the press.

"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."

To date, the photos are the sharpest and clearest sent by a probe. Previously, Pluto was a mystery to scientists due to its distance from Earth. The planetary body is considered the furthest of its kinds in the galaxy. New findings will help astronomers better comprehend space.

Processing most of the information will take over a year because scientists are only able to gather 1KB to 4KB of information at a time. There are still gigabytes of data that need to be gathered. Even so, the unmanned spacecraft did compress some of the best photos for a faster 4.5-hour transfer back to Earth.

Besides exploring Pluto, New Horizons photographed the nearby orbiting moons. They include Hydra, Charon, Styx, Nix and Kerberos. Discovered in 2005, the potato-shaped Hydra measures 27-miles in length. Charon is in contrast much larger, and has a smoother surface. However, scientists believe that Charon is still geologically active inside. NASA expects to continue receiving data from Pluto for the next 16 months.  

Provided that there is enough hydrazine fuel and government funding, New Horizons can still operate into the late 2020s and beyond. Currently, NASA is reviewing plans to send New Horizons to two comet-like objects dubbed 2014 MU69, which forms a region called the Kuiper Belt. Estimated to be about 4.6 billion years old, 2014 MU69 is thought to be responsible for the creation of Pluto. It is about one and half billion kilometers away from the dwarf planet.

NASA has yet to reach a decision on whether to explore that region. Even so, its scientists argue that a mission of that nature will cost less fuel, which determines how long New Horizons will run. If approved, the mission to the Kuiper Belt will kick off on January 1, 2019.