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'Spider' on Pluto reaches icy legs across a bizarre landscape

NASA scientists marvel at an unusual surface feature seen on Pluto and speculate on its origins.

Pluto has developed a reputation for being pretty darn strange. The basis for this is the wealth of information sent back (and still coming back) from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which buzzed the dwarf planet last year. Images and data suggest nutty features like a frozen lake, methane snow and an ice volcano.

Now add an icy "spider" to that list.

A NASA image shows reddish leg-like tendrils emanating across Pluto's surface and originating from a single spot. It looks like some sort of strange sci-fi spider creature. New Horizons grabbed the photo on July 14, 2015. NASA released the enhanced color image and explanation on Thursday.

The "legs" are actually surface fractures. The longest is 360 miles (580 kilometers) long and has been saddled with the informal name "Sleipnir Fossa." Sleipner is an eight-legged horse from Norse mythology, so it ties back into the spider theme of the feature. "Fossa" is Latin for a ditch or trench.

Pluto spider

This "spider" on Pluto won't crawl away.

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

"The pattern these fractures form is like nothing else we've seen in the outer solar system, and shows once again that anywhere we look on Pluto, we see something different," said Oliver White, a member of the New Horizons geology team.

NASA says the spider-like pattern may be caused by "a focused source of stress in the crust under the point where the fractures converge -- for example, due to material welling up from under the surface."

New Horizons' epic trip to Pluto started with its launch in 2006. There is a possible mission extension under consideration that would take the spacecraft deeper in the Kuiper Belt to examine other icy objects in the area.

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