OK, Pluto might not be a planet anymore (it’s now a dwarf planet for those living under a rock for the last decade), but it’s still stunning.
On Thursday, NASA released a color photo captured by their New Horizons spacecraft which shows off Pluto’s diverse geological and compositional features in the north polar area. It was obtained at a range of approximately 21,100 miles from Pluto, about 45 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14, 2015.
Long canyons can be seen running vertically across the polar area. The widest of the canyons is about 45 miles wide and runs close to the north pole.
The degraded walls of these canyons appear to be much older than the more sharply defined canyon systems elsewhere on Pluto, perhaps because the polar canyons are older and made of weaker material. These canyons also appear to represent evidence for an ancient period of tectonics.
A shallow, winding valley runs the entire length of the canyon floor. Many other valleys run nearby.
Large, irregularly-shaped pits are 45 miles across and 2.5 miles deep. These pits may show locations where subsurface ice may have melted from below, collapsing the ground.
Also, the color and composition of this region are unusual. High elevations show up in a distinctive yellow, not seen elsewhere on Pluto. The yellowish terrain fades to a uniform bluish gray at lower elevations and latitudes. New Horizons’ infrared measurements show methane ice is abundant in the area, and there is relatively little nitrogen ice.
“One possibility is that the yellow terrains may correspond to older methane deposits that have been more processed by solar radiation than the bluer terrain,” Will Grundy, New Horizons composition team lead from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Ariz., said.