Big news from NASA again this week as they discovered that Pluto has red water ice and blue skies. The latest images released, taken by the New Horizons mission, reveals red water ice on the planets surface and an almost Earth like sky against the darkness of space.
The red ice has astronomers exited, but baffled. Scientist are still working on trying to explain the reddish tints.
The new photo of Pluto’s hazes was processed to show the colour the human eye would see if it was looking at the dwarf planet from the same angle as the probe.
‘Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt? It’s gorgeous,’ said Alan Stern, Nasa’s New Horizons principal investigator.
The haze particles themselves are likely grey or red, but the way they scatter blue light has captured the attention of the New Horizons science team.
‘That striking blue tint tells us about the size and composition of the haze particles,’ said science team researcher Carly Howett, also of SwRI.
‘A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. On Earth, those particles are very tiny nitrogen molecules.
‘On Pluto they appear to be larger — but still relatively small — soot-like particles we call tholins.’
Scientists believe the tholin particles form high in the atmosphere, where ultraviolet sunlight breaks apart and ionises nitrogen and methane molecules.
The light also allows them to react with one another to form more complex negatively and positively charged ions.
When they combine, they form very complex macromolecules, a process first found to occur in the upper atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan.
The more complex molecules continue to combine and grow until they become small particles; volatile gases condense and coat their surfaces with ice frost before they have time to fall through the atmosphere to the surface, where they add to Pluto’s red colouring.
Alex Parker, a Nasa scientist who was responsible for writing the algorithm for find the true colour image of Pluto, described on Twitter how the blue haze broke his computer the first time it discovered the blue haze.
‘After I’d de-noised and co-registered this one yesterday afternoon it should have taken a couple hours to complete,’ he tweeted.
‘But my machine shut down halfway through. So started again and got that image wrapped up and shipped out sometime after 11pm.’
New Horizons has also detected a number of exposed regions of water ice on Pluto using collected by the Ralph spectral composition mapper on New Horizons.
‘We expected water-ice to be there, but we’ve searched for water-ice in Pluto’s spectrum for decades and not seen it before now,’ tweeted Parker.
‘Large expanses of Pluto don’t show exposed water ice,’ said science team member Jason Cook, of SwRI, ‘because it’s apparently masked by other, more volatile ices across most of the planet.
‘Understanding why water appears exactly where it does, and not in other places, is a challenge that we are digging into.’
A strange aspect of the detection is that the areas showing the most obvious water ice spectral signatures correspond to areas that are bright red in recently released colour images.
‘I’m surprised that this water ice is so red,’ says Silvia Protopapa, a science team member from the University of Maryland, College Park.
‘We don’t yet understand the relationship between water ice and the reddish tholin colorants on Pluto’s surface.’
The news follows days of speculation that Nasa would reveal an ‘amazing’ discovery concerning Pluto and its New Horizons mission.
Hopes were high that the space agency may have found signs of life on the dwarf planet – perhaps even aliens – after a principal investigator on the Nasa mission teased big news.
But Nasa quickly quashed the rumours. NewHorizons2015 tweeted: ‘There is a false rumour going around that there will be a big New Horizons science announcement tomorrow. Completely false’.
THERE COULD BE ALIENS BENEATH PLUTO’S CRUST, SAYS BRIAN COX
Alien life may be lurking beneath Pluto’s crust, according to physicist Brian Cox.
His comments come after the historic flyby of the dwarf planet by New Horizons, which uncovered huge glaciers and mountains made of water ice.
These features hint at the possibility of subterranean seas on the dwarf planet warm enough for organic chemistry to thrive, said Cox.
The probe ‘showed you that there may well be a subsurface ocean on Pluto,’ Cox told The Times. ‘[This] means – if our understanding of life on Earth is even slightly correct – that you could have living things there.’
The rumour seems to stem from a speech given by Dr Alan Stern, at the University of Alberta Canada, which Nasa says has been misinterpreted.
He is reported as saying: ‘Nasa won’t let me tell you what we’re going to tell you on Thursday. It’s amazing,’ when speaking about the latest images of Pluto and its moon Charon, which were recently released by the space agency.
They are the highest resolution images yet of the dwarf planet at the edge of the solar system, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft.
Dr Stern said in his speech: ‘This world is alive… it has weather, it has hazes in the atmosphere, active geology… Every week I am floored,’ as reported by The Guardian.
In recent weeks, detailed images of Pluto reveal new features such as dunes, nitrogen ice flows that apparently oozed out of mountainous regions onto plains, and even networks of valleys that may have been carved by material flowing over Pluto’s surface.
Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) said: ‘The randomly jumbled mountains might be huge blocks of hard water ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the region informally named Sputnik Planum.’
Nasa has had a momentous year for discoveries so far, finding flowing water on Mars and Kepler 452b, dubbed the most Earth-like planet identified so far.
Dr Stern said: ‘2015 will be a year in textbooks forever’.
In July, New Horizons became the first spacecraft to reach Pluto after travelling across the solar system for nine years.
Dr Stern said only 10 per cent of data captured about Pluto and its moons have been analysed so far.
New Horizons is now heading towards the edge of the solar system and the Kuiper belt, around three billion miles from Earth.
It is currently 3.1 billion miles (5 billion km) from Earth, with all systems healthy and operating normally, according to today’s Nasa update.
In this extended colour image of Pluto taken by New Horizons, rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up along Pluto’s day-night terminator and show intricate but puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between. This view, roughly 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, combines blue, red and infrared images
Just like Charon, Pluto’s landscape is far more varied than scientists could have ever imagined.
The latest high-resolution images of the dwarf planet, published last week, show this diversity in unprecedented detail, highlighting what appears to be snake-skin-like patterns on its surface.
The clearest image of this was taken near the line that separates day from night, capturing a vast rippling landscape of strange, aligned linear ridges that Nasa said astonished New Horizons team members.
‘It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,’ said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis.
‘It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. 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.’
Scientists aren’t sure what causes the pattern, but theories include the impact of plate tectonics rippling the surface, or frozen gasses that are released when surface temperatures increase.
The ‘snakeskin’ image of Pluto’s surface is just one tantalising piece of data New Horizons sent back in recent days.
The spacecraft also captured the highest-resolution colour view yet of Pluto, as well as detailed spectral maps and other high-resolution images. The new ‘extended colour’ view of Pluto shows the extraordinarily rich colour palette of Pluto.