Thursday 8 December 2016

Pluto's majestic blue skies and red water ice revealed in stunning photos

Sarah-Jane Murphy

Published 09/10/2015 | 14:25

A low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover showing the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target call
A low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover showing the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target call "Buckskin" is show in this handout photo taken August 5, 2015 and provided by NASA October 8, 2015. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Handout via Reuters

Images captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft have revealed that Pluto has blue atmospheric hazes and water ice on its surface.

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The colour of the haze is dictated by the grey or red coloured particles that scatter blue light in the planet's atmosphere.

"That striking blue tint tells us about the size and composition of the haze particles.

"A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles.

Pluto's haze layer shows its blue color in this picture taken by NASA's New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera released October 8, 2015. REUTERS/NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Handout via Reuters
Pluto's haze layer shows its blue color in this picture taken by NASA's New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera released October 8, 2015. REUTERS/NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Handout via Reuters

Read More: Pluto covered with flowing ice - and hazier than scientists thought

"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," lead scientist Carly Howett explained.

The particles form high in the atmosphere, and are broken apart by ultraviolet sunlight.

Particles eventually reform as they fall to Pluto’s surface, creating its magnificent red coloring.

Read More: Pluto's vast frozen plans revealed by spacecraft

The small patches of water ice detected by New Horizons appear bright red in recent colour images.

"I’m surprised that this water ice is so red,” says Silvia Protopapa, a team member.

"We don’t yet understand the relationship between water ice and the reddish tholin colorants on Pluto's surface.”

The New Horizons spacecraft is 3.1 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from Earth and is on course for a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69.

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