Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Hubble Images Reveal Pluto's Dynamic Surface

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Hubble Images Reveal Pluto's Dynamic Surface

Article excerpt

The most detailed images yet of Pluto, taken by the Hubble Telescope, reveal a yellow-black sphere whose surface appears to be among the most dynamic in the solar system.

The dwarf planet Pluto has gone yellow camo.

New images of the distant ice ball captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and released Thursday reveal a sphere swathed in muted blotches of black, charcoal, white, and yellow-orange.

The colors testify to the nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide that are the prime ingredients in Pluto's ices and its faint wisp of an atmosphere.

The images - the most detailed yet taken of Pluto - reveal a surface that is among the most dynamic in the solar system.

The new images, gathered between 2002 and 2003 and processed over the past seven years, also show large differences in surface features compared with images taken in 1994, explained Mike Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology at a NASA briefing Thursday.

On Earth, "ice caps come and go; there's Mars, where ice caps come and go," he says. "Then there's Pluto. You're looking at the surface in the solar system that has the biggest changes of anything we're ever seen."

These changes appear in some images as the morphing of dark and light patches across the surface over time, and may be linked to the changing seasons on Pluto, researchers say. Pluto's trip around the sun takes 248 years. So one would expect the march of the seasons to be closer to a snail's pace.

"But it's a little bit of a surprise to see this big a change this fast," in surface features as well in as other aspects of Pluto's appearance, says Marc Buie, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and the lead scientist on the project.

The colors in the composite images represent "my best guess of what the true-color appearance would be if you were sitting in your spacecraft floating around Pluto," Dr. Buie says.

The view is similar to the one humans get of the moon with the naked eye, he says. There's not enough detail to pick out individual mountains or craters, but enough to suggest significant differences in surface features.

Images will help plan for fly-by

The new images of what was once the solar system's ninth planet come as NASA's first mission to Pluto, New Horizons, has passed the half-way point in its trip to Pluto and at least one other object beyond in the Kuiper Belt - a region that begins just beyond Neptune and reaches deep into the outer solar system. …

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