It’s been a quiet two months, but at long last New Horizons will start firing back all the data it nabbed. Even this will incur some delays, though, as the team has opted to download only the uncompressed files; so instead of getting a preview of every image in two months, we’ll have to wait a year in order to see every image. Bummer.
“The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “The randomly jumbled mountains might be huge blocks of hard water ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the region informally named Sputnik Planum.”
New images also show the most heavily cratered — and thus oldest — terrain yet seen by New Horizons on Pluto next to the youngest, most crater-free icy plains. There might even be a field of dark wind-blown dunes, among other possibilities.
“Seeing dunes on Pluto — if that is what they are — would be completely wild, because Pluto’s atmosphere today is so thin,” said William B. McKinnon, a GGI deputy lead from Washington University, St. Louis. “Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we haven’t figured out is at work. It’s a head-scratcher.”
Most of the good details are in this Google Hangout with Bowman and Stern. I also recommend keeping an eye peeled on the Planetary Society’s blog, Emily Lakdawalla in particular has been very good at keeping up with events. She’s keeping a separate archive of New Horizon’s images over here.
I had to do something to commemorate the occasion, though. So:
It’s a composite of the recent panoramic images, with some sharpening, tweaking, and sweetening for human consumption. I really recommend clicking through for the full version, as this is a 3k by 3k image. That’s nine megapixels worth of Pluto goodness!
And better stuff is streaming down as we speak…