NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which is bound for Pluto, has spotted some surface features on the icy world, among them a possible polar cap.
NASA revealed Wednesday that with 60 million miles left to go before its encounter, which is scheduled to happen on July 14, 2015, New Horizons has already made some surprising observations, revealing light and dark spots on the surface of Pluto, which is now more than 32 times farther away from Earth than the Sun.
“We are starting to see intriguing features, such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole,” NASA science chief John Grunsfeld said in a statement, in reference to what scientists believe could be a polar ice cap.
In the photographs, Pluto seems to be just a highly pixelated small blob, but scientists can already see there is something very strange about its surface.
“It’s rare to see any planet in the solar system, at this low resolution, displaying such strong surface markings. If you had similar images of Mercury, or images of even Mars, you would not see the same kinds of big surface units going by as you do here on Pluto. That’s very promising,” New Horizons lead scientist Alan Stern, with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a press conference.
Like Uranus, Pluto is tipped onto its side, and New Horizons has a constant view on one of its polar zones, which is shown in the images to be more brighter than other areas. Astronomers suspect the polar region is covered by a highly reflective ice cap of frozen nitrogen.
New Horizons has already spent almost 10 years in its journey toward Pluto. In the meantime, Pluto, which was once believed to be the ninth and farthest planet in the solar system, was recently demoted to “dwarf planet” status after researchers came across other similar icy space objects in the solar system’s back yard.
Also observable in the photographs is Pluto’s moon Charon, which orbits around the dwarf planet every 6.4 days. The moon seems to be just a little dot, but that’s still an impressive achievement considering the spacecraft’s distance from it, but also Charon’s size, which is about the size of Texas.
New Horizons will continue to send images with improved quality and greater detail, as it will reach its closest point with Pluto, at approximately 7,800 miles, on July 14.
Image Source: Planets For Kids