Blue skies and H2O ice discovered by New Horizons' Pluto team

Another week has passed, and the hardworking NASA science team processing data for New Horizons has shared more incredible news about the icy dwarf planet Pluto.  Witness the electric blue hue surrounding the perimeter of Pluto, captured by the spacecraft's Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), caused by particles in its thin atmosphere scattering a lovely ring of violet-blue light.

These were the first color images of Pluto's atmospheric hazes seen, and they startled members of the land-based crew in Boulder, Colo.

“Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt? It’s gorgeous,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator.


“That striking blue tint tells us about the size and composition of the haze particles,” said science team researcher Carly Howett.  “A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. On Earth, those particles are very tiny nitrogen molecules. On Pluto they appear to be larger — but still relatively small — soot-like particles we call tholins.”


To add to the mounting list of fascinating findings, numerous small, exposed outcroppings of H2O ice were detected by New Horizons' Ralph spectral composition mapper and combined with visible imagery from the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) and infrared spectroscopy from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA). The most visible spectral signatures of water ice occur along Virgil Fossa, west of Elliot Crater on the left side of the detail image, and also appear in Viking Terra near the top of the frame.

“Large expanses of Pluto don’t show exposed water ice,” said science team member Jason Cook, “because it’s apparently masked by other, more volatile ices across most of the planet. Understanding why water appears exactly where it does, and not in other places, is a challenge that we are digging into.” 

Stay tuned for more stunning discoveries by NASA's historic mission to the Pluto System, and tell us if you're enjoying the inspiring images.

(Via NASA/New Horizons)

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