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New Horizons reveals dramatic image of Pluto’s hazy atmosphere

by Brandon Russell | July 24, 2015July 24, 2015 8:00 pm PDT

The image above isn’t a teaser for a Ring reboot (though one is reportedly on the way).

Instead, it’s an image that was shared by NASA’s New Horizons team on Friday, showing off a backlit Pluto bathing in the sun. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen the dwarf planet like this, and although it doesn’t look like much, it’s changing the way scientists think about Pluto’s atmosphere.

Seven hours after making its closest approach, New Horizons aimed its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at the backside of Pluto, and captured a breathtaking, emotionally moving image. While there’s very little surface detail, the silhouetted spacerock reveals quite a bit about Pluto’s atmosphere, which scientists believe contains haze as high as 80 miles above the surface.

There are actually two distinct layers of haze, according to NASA—one is about 50 miles above the surface, while the other lies at an altitude of about 30 miles.

“The hazes detected in this image are a key element in creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto’s surface its reddish hue,” said Michael Summers, a New Horizon’s co-investigator.

Models suggest that the hazes form when ultraviolet sunlight breaks apart methane gas, a simple hydrocarbon known to reside throughout Pluto’s atmosphere. The breakdown of methane triggers the buildup of more complex hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene and acetylene, which were also discovered at Pluto by New Horizons. As these hydrocarbons fall to the lower, colder parts of the atmosphere, they condense as ice particles, forming the hazes. Ultraviolent sunlight chemically converts hazes into tholins, the dark hydrocarbons that color Pluto’s surface.

The image is a stark reminder that there’s still much to be learned about the dwarf planet—and our immediate solar system. But even more than that, it’s also a reminder of how beautiful space can be.

“It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries–it brings incredible beauty,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator, Alan Stern.

NASA

Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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