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9 crazy things we learned about Pluto in the past year

The former ninth planet isn't just a frozen rock. We now know it has snow, blue skies and of course, a lot of heart.

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Eric Mack
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Eric Mack
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1 of 9 NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Gladstone et al./Science (2016)

Pluto haze and more

For years, Pluto was just a blue dot in diagrams of the solar system, but very recently a more colorful view of the former planet has come together thanks to one well-traveled robot.

It's been over a year since NASA's New Horizons spacecraft first sent back images of Pluto, leading up to its dramatic fly-by in July of 2015. Data is still streaming back to Earth for analysis, adding to the more complete picture of the dwarf planet that New Horizons is painting for us.

In this gallery we've highlighted the strangest, most surprising and just plain awesome things we've learned about Pluto in the past year. For starters, it's super hazy on Pluto. In this image about 20 haze layers are visible extending over hundreds of kilometers of the dwarf planet.

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2 of 9 NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The heart of Pluto

The light area in this combination of blue, red and infrared images is the "heart-shaped" frozen plain on the surface of Pluto named Sputnik Planum.

Recent analysis published in March finds the heart is geologically young and absent of craters. This fact, along with the presence of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices hints at a world that isn't as frozen in time as we previously thought.

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3 of 9 NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institut

Nuclear Volcanoes?

Pluto could be home to nuclear-powered volcanoes, believe it or not. It's suspected that the radioactive breakdown of elements deep in Pluto's interior, left over from its formation, could be melting ice and allowing it to flow to the surface.

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4 of 9 NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Blue skies

Not only is there a hazy atmosphere on Pluto, but it may actually be blue like our own skies here on Earth.

New Horizons science team researcher Carly Howett explained in a release: "A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. On Earth, those particles are very tiny nitrogen molecules. On Pluto they appear to be larger -- but still relatively small -- sootlike particles we call tholins."

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5 of 9 NASA

Awesome atlas

Right now, maps of Pluto and its moon Charon read like a science fiction hall of fame roster. The informal names given for features on both worlds honor real and imagined characters like Cthulhu, Skywalker and Percival Lowell. A fair number of robots are also honored, including Sputnik, Voyager and the Tardis from "Doctor Who."

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6 of 9 NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

"Snakeskin" mountain ridges

Scientists think the odd, snakeskin-like features on the surface of Pluto could actually be ice dunes:

"It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology," William McKinnon of the New Horizons team said in a press release. "This'll really take time to figure out; maybe it's some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto's faint sunlight."

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7 of 9 NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Methane snow

It snows on Pluto, too, just not with the same white fluffy stuff that's fun to catch on your tongue. In fact, trying that with snow on Pluto would be pretty unpleasant because the flakes falling on some snow-capped peaks there look to be made of methane.

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8 of 9 NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Planet-sized Pluto?

One of the first surprises to come back from New Horizons was that Pluto is actually a bit larger than previously thought, adding more ammo to one side of the ongoing argument over whether the world's demotion from planet to dwarf planet was deserved.

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9 of 9 NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Psychedelic Pluto

To just emphasize how much weirder and more colorful the Pluto we know today is than that distant blue dot that stood in for it up until 2015, here's a false-color image designed to make its different and distinct regions stand out. The result looks something like a psychedelic valentine sent from the edge of the solar system.

Even though we have a better picture of Pluto now than ever before, it's really just the beginning. There's still lots more to learn about the dwarf planet, which we now know is more like a rainbow-colored dot at the edge of the solar system.

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