New Horizons: Nitrogen Ice Flows and Beautiful Haze

As NASA continues to receive and develop the massive stock of imagery and data from New Horizons’ recent flyby of Pluto, the dwarf planet continues to surprise and amaze scientists and enthusiasts alike. The latest images released on Friday reveal a breathtaking silhouette of the dwarf planet’s thin atmosphere, and lays bare nitrogen ice flowing on the surface.

For any still catching up, New Horizons recently earned its place in history as the very first probe to reach Pluto and its five moons on July 14th. The probe was sent into scientific overdrive during its short flyby because it was going much too fast to orbit the dwarf planet.


The thing about interplanetary space travel is…gravity. We couldn’t hope to pack enough chemical fuel to launch anything to the outer planets, because at a certain point we would have to add fuel to lift the extra fuel off of the planet, and more fuel for that fuel’s weight, etc. So instead, NASA sends its probes to rendezvous with objects with particularly high gravity, like Jupiter or Saturn. Then the gas giants’ immense gravity is used to sling-shot the probe, multiplying its speed to a great enough magnitude to shorten its journey by decades. This reduction of transit time also reduces the likelihood of other mishaps, like encounters with space dust travelling faster than the speed of sound, or mechanical failures. Because of its high velocity, there was simply no way for Pluto to slow the spacecraft into a stable orbit, so New Horizons had to work fast.


NASA’s most recent analyses show subtly differentiable layers of haze in Pluto’s nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane atmosphere. The atmosphere is roughly one hundred miles deep. “This is our first peek at Pluto’s atmosphere,” exclaimed Michael Summers, New Horizons scientist with George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He added that these atmospheric particles’ slow descent to the surface may be responsible for Pluto’s reddish hue.

What’s really strange is that Pluto’s hazy layer is five times thicker than computer models predicted, but its total mass seems to have been cut in half in just two short years. “That’s pretty astonishing, at least to an atmospheric scientist. That tells you something is happening,” Summers opined.


More of NASA’s new data from New Horizons revealed what look like glacial ice flows. But Pluto’s ground temperature is roughly -400 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it far too cold for the ice to be composed of water.


This not only confirms, but strengthens the fact that much of Pluto’s surface is basically as old as the dinosaurs, roughly a few hundred million years old, which is extremely young on a planetary scale.


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