New and exciting discoveries will continue to be made as more and more of the remaining data from New Horizon’s historic 14 July, 2015 flyby of Pluto is downlinked, processed and analyzed. The frozen, enigmatic world that was a mere speck on Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery plates in 1930, is quickly emerging to be one of immense scientific importance in our growing understanding of the processes and dynamics of this remote and frigid environment at the edge of our solar system where the sun is a brilliant, tiny disk less than 3% of its size here on earth. The sublime and surreal beauty of Pluto’s frozen landscape is revealed in the above high-resolution image, released on March 3rd and is one of many more to come.
One of the most prominent features on Pluto, about 3,000 kilometers long by 750 kilometers wide, Cthulhu Regio, is somewhat larger than the state of Alaska. Starting from the west of the great nitrogen ice plains of Sputnik Planum, it stretches nearly halfway around Pluto’s equator. The characteristic ruddy, deep-red hue, an aspect of the active surface chemistry, may be caused by a layer of dark tholins, complex molecules that form when methane is exposed to sunlight. The tholins are thought to overlay a substrate of rock and chemical ices that could include water, methane or nitrogen. Other aspects of the region’s fascinating geology are the wide variety of landscapes from mountainous, heavily cratered and fractured to smooth.
The enlarged inset measures approximately 450 kilometers long by 225 kilometers wide and shows the methane-ice covered mountain peaks, part of a larger mountain range 420 kilometers long located near the southeast boundary of the region. The crux of this finding is the almost perfect correspondence between the enhanced true-color image of the mountain range and the false-color image showing the same areas covered with methane ice. The false-color image was acquired by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) aboard New Horizons, an instrument specifically designed to spectroscopically detect chemical signatures.
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