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See the ethereal ring around Pluto as New Horizons looks back

Pluto is already otherworldly, but the dwarf planet is downright eerie in a new image showing its hazy skies backlit by the sun.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is on the other side of its flyby of dwarf planet Pluto. Its closest approach to Pluto came in epic fashion on July 14 as it zipped by at 30,000 miles per hour just 7,800 miles from the surface. Seven hours after the close encounter, the probe took a moment to peer around behind it and see Pluto backlit by the sun. NASA released the image Friday.

The dramatic image shows a hazy ring with Pluto a dark circle at the center. Scientists were surprised by how high the haze reached, as much as 80 miles above the surface. It was previously thought that the warmth of the dwarf planet's temperatures would restrict the hazes to a lower altitude.

"My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt," New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said in a statement. "It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries -- it brings incredible beauty."

Pluto's hazy skies
Pluto's hazes are a fascinating find for scientists to ponder. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

New Horizons launched in 2006 on a mission to collect images and data from Pluto. The dwarf planet, located in the Kuiper Belt of the solar system, was once considered a full-size planet, but received a demotion in 2006. (Some people think Pluto should be back in the planet club, now that it turns out to be bigger than expected.)

This faraway celestial body is still an object of fascination. New Horizons' journey has delivered a wealth of new information about its geography, atmosphere and exact size. The image of the ring around Pluto makes for an excellent farewell gift.