Oh, Pluto, we're not done with you yet. NASA'ssuccessfully maneuvered through a dramatic flyby on July 14, zipping close to the fascinating dwarf planet. Earlier this month, the spacecraft began sending information and images from its close encounter back to Earth, a process that is expected to take a year to complete.
NASA on Thursday released a series of dramatic close-ups of Pluto's surface. The words "bewildering," "complicated" and "scientists reeling" appeared in the accompanying news release. What has them all het up is the sheer variety of surface features, a look that was barely hinted it at in earlier, blurry approach images from New Horizons.
So far, researchers have noted valleys networked together, craters, chaotic mountains, nitrogen ice flows across plains regions and what may potentially be wind-blown dunes.
The dunes are of particular interest due to Pluto's thin atmosphere. If it really does have wind-swept dune areas, then scientists want to work out how they got there. They have already floated the possibility that Pluto had a thicker atmosphere at one time or that an as-yet-unknown process is at work. One project researcher describes it as "a head-scratcher."
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern had this evocative comment to share: "Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we've seen in the solar system. 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."
It will take New Horizons a year to downlink all its data, so we can look forward to further discoveries and a more intimate portraits of the dwarf planet that was considered a full planet until its demotion in 2006.