Friday, December 11, 2015

Zooming in on Pluto’s Pattern of Pits

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

On July 14, 2015, the telescopic camera on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took the highest resolution images ever obtained of the intricate pattern of “pits” across a section of Pluto’s prominent heart-shaped region, informally named Tombaugh Regio. Mission scientists believe these mysterious indentations may form through a combination of ice fracturing and evaporation.

The scarcity of overlying impact craters in this area also leads scientists to conclude that these pits – typically hundreds of yards across and tens of yards deep – formed relatively recently. Their alignment provides clues about the ice flow and the exchange of nitrogen and other volatile materials between the surface and the atmosphere.

The image is part of a sequence taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) as the spacecraft passed within 9,550 miles (15,400 kilometers) of Pluto’s surface, just 13 minutes before the time of closest approach.

The small box on the global view shows the section of the region imaged in the southeast corner of the giant ice sheet informally named Sputnik Planum. The magnified view is 50-by-50 miles (80-by-80 kilometers) across. The large ring-like structure near the bottom right of the magnified view -- and the smaller one near the bottom left -- may be remnant craters. The upper-left quadrant of the image shows the border between the relatively smooth Sputnik Planum ice sheet and the pitted area, with a series of hills forming slightly inside this unusual “shoreline.”

LORRI, the “eagle eyes” of New Horizons, is a panchromatic high-magnification imager, consisting of a telescope with an 8.2-inch (20.8-centimeter) aperture that focuses visible light onto a charge-coupled device (CCD). It’s essentially a digital camera with a large telephoto telescope – only fortified to operate in the cold, hostile environs near Pluto.

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. The Southwest Research Institute leads the science mission, payload operations, and encounter science planning.

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