NASA’s New Horizons has sent new pictures of Pluto, which include images of icy, pitted plains and craters full of a red soot dot, including a strange X mark.
New Horizons has sent its highest-resolution photographs so far from the broad, rolling plains that cover the dwarf planet in a heart-shaped expanse.
According to NASA, the new image includes high-resolution views of Pluto that extend to the center of “Sputnik Planum,” which is also called the icy plain. It forms the left side of Pluto’s “heart” feature. Despite the icy plain being at a lower elevation compared to most of the surrounding area, it is not completely flat. Its surface is separated into cells that are 10 miles to 25 miles wide. The picture is part of a sequence taken near New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet per pixel. The surface of this area shows a change in its composition, with astronomers believing the darker blocks are probably icebergs that are floating in denser solid nitrogen.
The most interesting aspect of the images is the spot with the “X,” mark. The astronomers at NASA believe that it is a site where four convection cells meet. They believe a pattern of the cells was formed by the thermal conviction of the nitrogen-filled ices. They also believed that a reservoir could be located somewhere deep within.
According to the astronomers, from deep within Pluto, a small amount of radioactive decay warms the dwarf planet, which is enough to lift the nitrogen up before it cools and falls for the cycle to begin again. They added that the overturning solid nitrogen can gradually evolve and merge over millions of years. The ridged margins, which mark the area where cooled nitrogen ice sinks back down, can be pinched off and eventually abandoned.
William McKinnon, deputy lead of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team, from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, said, “This part of Pluto is acting like a lava lamp. If you can imagine a lava lamp as wide as, and even deeper than the Hudson Bay, then this is something like that.”