Monday, July 13, 2015

New Horizons 1 Day From Pluto Flyby, First Surface Details Revealed on Camera (Pictures)

NASA's New Horizons mission is set to fly past Pluto in roughly 24 hours. Now within a million miles of the former 9th planet, scientists and the public are getting an eye full thanks to New Horizons' cameras, which are now capturing the first clear details of the former planet's surface.

Released yesterday, the latest images show the first clear details of surface features on Pluto and also its largest moon, Charon. As New Horizons approached Pluto and started beaming back images, the first resemblance of a surface began to appear on camera. Initially appearing as nothing more than splotches of color variation, these surface details have now emerged to appear as possible cliffs, valleys, mountains, and impact craters. Though still a million miles distant (close pass will be 30,800 miles) and anything but high-definition, these pictures have allowed scientists to get their first clear look at Pluto's surface and finally begin to narrow down the possibilities for what the distant world really looks like and the forces that shape it. 

Going into the mission, scientists had three competing ideas of what Pluto's surface would look like. The first idea is a dynamic world like Neptune's largest moon, Triton, which features ice geysers and a surface coated with varying shades of whites to grays thanks to the fact that the geysers, once they get high enough, become black thanks to trace amounts of carbon. It is this carbon-contaminated snow/ice that then falls back to the surface, thus giving Triton its anything but snow-white appearance.

The next idea of what Pluto may look like is one of a snow world. Why? Pluto is known to have an atmosphere, which is theorized to form when it gets to be summer and then freeze and fall back to the surface when it cools in fall/winter. The idea is that the frozen atmosphere would coat the mini world's surface, thus smoothing out many of surface features.

The third idea is basically idea two, sans surface-coating frozen atmosphere (this theory assumes that the atmosphere is too thin to amount to anything when it condenses and falls back to the surface). Result: a battered, frozen world bearing all of the impact craters incurred during its 4.5 billion year existence.

So far, theories 1 and 3 seem to be most likely as, thanks to the most recent images that show great color variation on the surface and fine details that would rule out the possibility of thick 'atmospheric snow.'

Needless to say, stay tuned as the hours progress as better and better pictures are sure to come beaming back to Earth, with the best coming Wednesday, the day pictures from close approach finally make it back to Earth.

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