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article imagePluto may have polar ice caps and nitrogen snow

By Stephen Morgan     Apr 30, 2015 in Science
NASA scientists are describing images of Pluto coming in from the New Horizon spacecraft as "incredible" and "stunning." The photos seem to show that the planet has ice caps, something which astronomers hadn't predicted.
NASA scientists could not conceal their excitement at a press briefing, when they revealed the results of the first images from the New Horizon space craft as it nears Pluto. The researchers are fascinated by the incoming data, which is throwing up some surprises about the surface of the tiny planet.
The Space Ref website quotes John Grunsfeld, an associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
"As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto's visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object."
Scientists were somewhat taken aback by the light and dark variations on the planet's surface, which suggest that Pluto may have ice caps and snowy weather conditions.
The BBC explains that;
"Pluto had a thin atmosphere made mostly of nitrogen. The expectation is that this gaseous envelope seasonally snows out on to the surface of the dwarf, which makes a polar cap a realistic proposition."
Alan Stern at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado said that the photos coming from Horizon's Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera were better than anything that's been obtained before and said that the data "may be evidence for a polar cap, which could be very, very exciting."
Quoted in Space Flight Now, Hal Weaver, the New Horizons mission scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory – which operates the spacecraft for NASA – also told reporters that the information from the craft is "very suspiciously suggestive of a polar cap"
“The polar cap is a region that’s normally a little bit colder than the rest of the surface and that’s where these volatile ices can condense on the surface. That’s what we think we’re seeing, but in the next month-and-a-half, we’re going to actually map with 60,000 pixels across the surface, and so we’ll be able to tell whether or not there’s really ice — whether those brightest regions are really ice and snowy patches," he said.
The team commented that it's rare to see any planet with such strong surface markings at this low resolution. At the moment, the astronomers can't be certain about what the surface of Pluto is really like and why there are these dark and light regions, but that will be revealed as New Horizon draws closer to the planet in June and July.
It has taken New Horizon 9 years to reach Pluto, aided by the use of a gravitation sling from Jupiter's gravity, which propelled it toward the edge of the solar system.
Stern said;
"It's stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes. These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface."
Quoted in, he added ;
"It's a mystery whether these bright and dark regions are caused by geology or topography or composition. But New Horizons has the capability, as we get closer, to solve just those kinds of mysteries, and we're looking forward to that."
"We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto's surface this summer," said Weaver.
More about Pluto, Ice caps, Nitrogen, Snow, new horizon
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