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Behold the Backlit Beauty of Distant Pluto

posted: 10/30/15
by: Jason Major for Discovery News
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At the beginning of September the world was treated to a fantastic view of the night side of Pluto, captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it departed the distant icy world on July 14, 2015. Backlit by the sun, Pluto's surprisingly complex atmospheric haze created a ghostly glow above its crescent-lit limb while frozen mountains cast reflected light upon neighboring Plutonian peaks.

On Thursday, NASA released an update to that image showing a more complete view of Pluto in its backlit glory, created from more high-resolution images that continue to stream in from the Kuiper Belt-bound spacecraft, over three billion miles away.

Backlit beauty of Pluto
NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The image above was made from data acquired by New Horizons' Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 km) from Pluto. The image resolution is 0.4 miles (700 m) per pixel, and the full-size version reveals incredible detail in the illuminated limb of the dwarf planet.

A contrast-enhanced crop of one area shows what I mean:

Enhanced Pluto shot
NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI. Edit by J. Major

North on Pluto is toward the right in this image, which is oriented as the spacecraft captured it during its historic flyby on July 14. (Which makes more sense if you remember that Pluto's rotational axis is tilted almost 120 degrees.)

Related: Pluto: A World of Blue Skies and Red Ice

Because of the data gathered from this perspective on the night side scientists now know that Pluto's extended atmosphere consists of a complex haze that's divided into into over a dozen separate layers. These layers contain fine soot-like particles called tholins: organic compounds that eventually precipitate down onto Pluto's surface, staining it red.

While suspended in the atmosphere, though, the tholins scatter light from the sun to give Pluto a blue sky... at least during its prolonged sunsets and sunrises.

Having successfully completed its Pluto flyby, New Horizons is now speeding out into the Kuiper Belt and has already begun course adjustments to meet up with its next proposed target: a 20-30-mile (30-45 km) wide object called 2014 MU69. A billion miles beyond Pluto, New Horizons will--if the mission is indeed approved --fly past 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019.

Related: Why Aren't We Staying at Pluto?

See this and more science images from the New Horizons mission here.

New Horizons is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the science mission, payload operations, and encounter science planning.

Source: New Horizons/JHUAPL

This article originally appeared on Discovery News

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