Flowing Ice and Haze – the newest discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons mission

Flowing ice and a surprising extended haze are among the newest discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons mission, which reveal distant Pluto to be an icy world of wonders.
Now, researchers have discovered that the distant dwarf planet has both flowing ice and a surprising extended haze.
“We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some revelations, and now, 10 days after closest approach, we can say that our anticipation has been more than surpassed,” said NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld, in a news publication. “With flowing ices, bizarre surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and massive haze, Pluto is showing a variety of planetary geology that is truly sensational.”
The scientists detected hazes in the photos that were taken of the Pluto by New Horizons. In fact, it is the hazes that help give Pluto’s surface its reddish tone. They are essential for creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that create the red hue. Studying Pluto’s atmosphere offers clues as to what is happening below. “Detected hazes exposed in this image are a key element in forming the complex hydrocarbon compounds that provide Pluto’s surface its reddish hue,” said Michael Summers, a New Horizons co-investigator from George Mason University of Virginia.


Credit: NASA

Representations suggest the hazes form when ultraviolet rays breaks up methane gas atoms – a simple hydrocarbon in Pluto’s atmosphere. The breakdown of methane generates the buildup of more composite hydrocarbon gases, for example acetylene and ethylene, which also were revealed in Pluto’s atmosphere by New Horizons mission. As these hydrocarbons fall to the lower, icier parts of the atmosphere, they condense into ice particles that produce the hazes. Solar ultraviolet irradiation chemically transforms hazes into heteropolymer molecules named tholins, the dark hydrocarbons that color Pluto’s surface. Researchers previously considered that temperatures would be too warm for hazes to form at elevations higher than 20 miles above this tiny planet’s surface. The newest pictures, though, show otherwise.


Credit: NASA

The researchers also spotted evidence of interesting ices flowing across Pluto’s surface and revealing signs of recent geological activity, which is something that the scientists didn’t think to find. The New Horizons mission will continue to send stored information back to Earth through late 2016. The space capsule currently is at 7.6 million miles (12.2 million km) beyond Pluto, flying deeper into the Kuiper Belt. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, planned, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the most important mission of NASA. Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®), based in San Antonio, leads the science team, payload processes and encounter science planning. This mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

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