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Pluto’s Colorful, Scaly Terrain Revealed in Detailed Closeups

The more we see of Pluto, the more stunning it gets – and that’s not because we understand what’s going on. It’s the opposite. Rather than neatly fitting pieces into a big, Pluto-shaped puzzle, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is returning data that make it clear just how unbelievably enigmatic this little world is.

That’s why exploring Pluto is so fun.

Images released today are among the most beautifully bizarre we’ve seen so far. There’s a rough, scalloped texture that team members say resembles “dragon scales” or “tree bark,” and this thing that looks like a fossilized brittle star; craters that appear as though they’re filled with pasta sauce; pits that resemble the cantaloupe terrain on Neptune’s moon Triton; long, sinuous canyons that are ruddy in their depths and bright at their rims; and extremely colorful landscapes that make it look as though Pluto’s mountains are bleeding.

How that all works, we don’t know – but if space exploration and planetary science were easy, it would be nowhere near as rewarding.

Zoom in on this high-res, enhanced color view of Pluto to get a good look at the extreme variety of terrains and colors on its surface. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Understanding Pluto is a lot like climbing a mountain: The satisfaction comes from the struggle it takes to reach the peak. After all, no one writes home about simply driving to a summit — the views might be the same, but the sense of achievement? Not even remotely similar.

Earlier this year, I climbed Kilimanjaro for the first time, and last night, I got back from a few too-short days in the Canadian Rockies. There, bare slabs of rock erupt from tree-covered valleys, their ancient layers outlined by a fresh frosting of snow. Lakes tucked into canyons slowly collect the silty slough of glaciers and snowpack, which turn frigid water into brilliant, unearthly shades of green and blue.

Landscapes like this exert an almost irresistible pull on me. I want to know what it’s like to charge up those slopes and slip through those trees, to meet the boundary where that evergreen carpet lost its battle with gravity, and then to continue going, to tiptoe up to alpine shorelines, trek through alien landscapes and ogle the myriad ways nature sculpts Earth’s stones into craggy gargoyles.

Zoom in on this high-res image and take a look at that pitted terrain -- and those mountains! Wouldn't they be fun to climb? ((NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Zoom in on this high-res image and take a look at that pitted terrain — and those mountains! Wouldn’t they be fun to climb? (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

For me, reaching a summit isn’t the sole motivation for a climb; in fact, on the highest mountains, lingering at the top is downright dangerous. On lower peaks, summits can be nice places to rest and enjoy the view, clouds permitting, but they’re merely markers signifying the end of a particular route (and descents can be more punishing, in many ways).

The tug, for me, comes from the struggle of the journey, in the breathless effort it takes to continue climbing higher and higher, step after burning step. It’s in the challenge of billy-goating through tricky passes and surviving slippery trails, in finding the path through the scree and in putting training and skills to the test.

It’s the same with figuring out Pluto. You have to love the uncertainty and the challenge, accept the questions and mysteries. As images of Pluto come back to Earth, the fun is not in foolproof explanations for how a particular feature came to be, but in the thrill of seeing something for the first time and knowing that right now, we don’t know what it’s doing there. It’s in the need to tinker with theories and revise what we think we know. It’s in allowing science to lead us to answers, as surely as relying on all that training will get us to a summit.

“The short version is, I don’t really know the answer,” team member Will Grundy said to me last week, when images of Pluto’s haze prompted me to ask what a weather forecast would look like on Pluto. He then proceeded to beautifully lay out the logic and the questions we’d need to consider while tackling the problem.

A closeup view of two isolated mountains on Pluto. ((NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
A closeup view of two isolated mountains on Pluto. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Right now, we’re still on the tree-covered foothills of Pluto, staring at its peak through needled branches and trying to gain the next ridge.

Someday, I would love to be able to tell the story of Pluto — how it took root in the swirling disk of dust and gas that ringed our infant sun and, over millions of years, grew into a mottled, complex world with a giant moon and four smaller, icy companions. When, in Pluto’s history, did its mountains first punch through the exotic ices frosting its surface? How did that even happen? Did Pluto get pummeled by space rocks early in life, and if so, what happened to all the craters from that era? When did Pluto start getting its wrinkles, which look so much like the lines carved into wizened human faces?

What will its next 4.6 billion years be like?

I’m glad I can’t tell that story now, because it means our journey isn’t over. Once we know everything about Pluto (if we ever do), there is no more up. No more adventures, no more unexpected obstacles, no more surprises…until we descend, spend a minute recuperating, and get to work finding another mountain, or another route to Pluto’s peak.

7 thoughts on “Pluto’s Colorful, Scaly Terrain Revealed in Detailed Closeups

  1. A good many years ago, I lived in San Francisco. It is a beautiful town. The famous fog would envelop everything with a lovely coolness, especially dramatic in summertime. To me, that isolated mountain on Pluto looks like a peak emerging out of the fog. It appears that, at least at the time the spacecraft flew by, this fog (or nitrogen ice) had filled up all the valleys so that only the tallest peaks — and the continents — were sticking out.

  2. About newly found out data for Pluto.
    Mercury as well the other planets in the solar system was born from the Sun because all planets centripetal acceleration fulfills the rule: g=V.C/R.ln(1+V/C), where R – is the distance between the planet and the Sun, V=w.R, where w – is the angular velocity of the equatorial area of the Sun. See USM part I http://www.kanevuniverse.com Obtained result coincides with the same acceleration estimated by the law: g=G.M/r.r The Moon was born from the Earth in the early live days of the two. The proof of such assertion is shown in the part I USM http://www.kanevuniverse.com where is calculated the centripetal acceleration on the Moon’s surface which exactly coincides with the experimental one, through the following newly found out rule there: To distinguish the planets from other objects in the solar system, there it isn’t enough to estimate the form of orbit (elliptic or more-less circuit one) and the mass of object, but also to calculate the own centripetal acceleration via the field formula shown above. If obtained result coincides with the same acceleration estimated by the low: g=G(M/r.r), then the observing object is planet…if it isn’t then this is asteroid or some another alien object! The same formula is applies to calculate the centripetal acceleration of the Moon, where R is the distance between the Earth and the Moon and (w) is the angular velocity of the equatorial plane of the Earth. The coincidence is remarkable. The same is in force about all (I repeat all) moons of all planets in the solar system, which means that all moons of the planets also was born from respectively planets.
    Second important suggestion is that the Sun in fact synthesis all nature element until uranium, but not only iron how was estimated so far. It is so because of the essence of the field, see again Part I USM. So the core of the Sun is contains from super dense and therefore with huge gravitational attraction material – nuclear chain, most probably from uranium nuclei, see joromachine http://www.kanevuniverse.com and with super strong common magnetic moment. That is why the Sun changes its magnetic poles for about 11 years or so – because of the interaction between this core and the plasma surrounding it. How it is seen this core reminds the so called “neutron star”, which of course hasn’t any physical means because such creation is impossible, as well this is in force about the so called “black hole”. Such core possesses any star, even any planet but the difference is only in the size of the core – in smallest objects this core can be only centimeter’s radius (see again USM and essence of the field). The size of the core of our Sun is around 70 km in radius (see USM). For example proof about this assertion we can find out in rings and moons of Saturn, in their different direction of revolving (some of them), which shows that the core of Saturn also changes its polarization, similarly to the Sun, but very slowly, because the Saturn is far smaller and far cooler than the Sun. Now we can suppose that Mercury (because it was born from the Sun last in line) has most large quantity of heaviest elements in comparison with the rest of the planets and that is why Mercury is most dense object in the solar system. Maybe the core of Mercury is responsible for volcanic activity there and maybe it is in force about all planets?!
    So let analysis the last achievement about the Pluto data: Young mountains without craters and may be without any volcanic activity despite age of the Pluto’s mountains? According to shown above the Pluto has to be the first planet born from the Sum, if Pluto indeed is planet but not separated moon of Neptune, which we can estimate applying above formulae. So the chemical composition of Pluto has to be mainly from light elements such as hydrogen carbon until lithium may be, where the core is formed by these light elements and it is difficult (if not impossible) to form nuclear chain and respectively strong common magnetic moment as it is for Mercury for example. That is why there absent traces of volcanic activity. G.Kanev

  3. I like the fog analogy, what if the exotic ices do evaporate and form a veil when they get closer to the sun and some chemical reaction also provides some heat. then, at a distance, they condense back into ice to form these patterns. the do look like flow patterns in some instances and also a vague hexagonal shape like dried clay soil in others. just a thought. Ken C

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