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Pluto's weird surface has puzzling pitted terrain

Pluto's surface is totally the pits in a new NASA image showing odd formations of dimples, troughs and curved indentations.

Pluto's surface looks like the work of a modern artist. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

For years, we only knew Pluto as a fuzzy space blob. Low-resolution pictures were the best looks we had at the dwarf planet. Then NASA's New Horizons spacecraft left Earth in early 2006 and spent almost a decade getting into position for a close flyby of Pluto. Now we have images that show Pluto in astounding detail.

NASA released the latest close-up look at the dwarf planet on Friday. It shows a sunlit slice of Pluto with a dimpled terrain that looks like a creative piece of abstract modern art. The photo covers an area 130 miles (210 kilometers) across. If this were Google Maps, we'd be saying we could see our house from here.

The region, known informally as Sputnik Planum, looks like a study of a beach after water has dampened and smoothed its surface. But it's most likely made up of volatile ices, which could include solid nitrogen. It's not the sort of place you'd go to sunbathe.

The distinctive patterns are puzzling to scientists. "The pits, and the way they're aligned, provide clues about the ice flow and the exchange of volatiles between the surface and atmosphere, and the science team is working hard to understand what physical processes are at play here," New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver said in a news release.

New Horizons is amid a year-long data dump, sending images and information collected from the flyby back to its home base. The pitted-terrain image was taken on July 14, on the way to the probe's closest approach.

We have a lot more of Pluto to look forward to as fresh images arrive and scientists crack the codes of the dwarf planet's many mysteries. The first study with findings from the mission just arrived last week.