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'Like dragon scales': Pluto ripples with weird snakeskin-like features

The latest batch of photos from the New Horizons craft zoom in on the former planet to reveal weird sights straight out of science fiction.

Zoom in on this high-res enhanced color view of Pluto. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The latest photos downlinked from New Horizons might make you wonder if NASA was really looking for "the spice" when it flew the craft by Pluto earlier this year. The images show sections of rippling, "snakeskin"-looking surface features and textured plains that might be explained by ice dunes. This all sounds a little like the planet Arrakis from the "Dune" series of novels by Frank Herbert.

Of course, Arrakis was actually a desert planet and probably not as eerily colorful as the latest super high-res shot of Pluto above.

But the fictional, spice-filled planet did have dunes and giant, snake-like Sandworms that might be able to explain the big snakeskin features below that have NASA scientists stumped.

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A close look at Pluto reveals snakeskin-textured mountain ridges. NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

"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."

That probably makes more sense than Sandworm tracks, but the creatures could still be hibernating down below the surface of the Sputnik Planum. That's the flat area in the new close-up below that looks pockmarked by what could be frozen dunes of "bright volatile ice particles," according to NASA.

The high-resolution shot was taken by New Horizons' narrow-angle Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, but just downlinked on Sunday. In addition to the dune-like features, you can also see the old shoreline of a shrinking glacial lake and stark "water-ice mountains" sporting steep cliffs.

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This 75-mile section of the surface shows a few mountains amid dotted plains. NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Like in the full planet view at the top of this post, the colors in the above photo were turned up just a bit to accentuate the unexpected contrasts on Pluto.

"Pluto's surface colors were enhanced in (the full-planet view) to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds," said New Horizons team member John Spencer. "Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode."

Hopefully decoding it reveals something similar to the spice on Arrakis that will enable safe interstellar travel so we can go far beyond Pluto to places like the ones in the gallery below.