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    An artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, currently en route to Pluto, is shown in this handout image provided by Science@NASA

    Pluto Has a Polar Ice Cap, But Probably No Penguins

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    NASA's New Horizons probe, on its approach to Pluto, has revealed images of dark and bright regions on the planet's surface, one of which scientists believe is a polar ice cap comprised of frozen nitrogen.

    The first detailed images of Pluto's surface have been taken by NASA's New Horizons space probe on its approach to the planet, revealing a varied surface including the possible presence of a "cap" of highly reflective snow at one of its poles.

    A series of images was taken at 13 different times spanning 6.5 days, from April 12 to April 18, 2015, when the spacecraft’s distance from Pluto decreased from about 69 million miles [111 million kilometers] to 64 million miles [104 million kilometers].

    Pluto orbits our sun more than 3 billion miles [about 5 billion kilometers] from Earth, and until now scientists have been unable to see its surface in detail; the New Horizons probe, the fastest ever launched, has traveled a longer time and further away than any space mission in history.

    "After traveling more than nine years through space, it’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes," said Alan Stern, New Horizons' principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "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."

    In the images taken by New Horizons' telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager [LORRI] camera, Pluto and its largest satellite Charon are shown rotating around a center-of-mass every 6.4 Earth days, with one pole of Pluto primarily visible, since the planet rotates on its side.

    The above tweet shows images from New Horizons' telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera of Pluto and its moon Charon, completing one complete rotation of the system.

    This pole "appears to be brighter than the rest of the disk in all the images," report the researchers, who believe the brightness might be caused by a "cap" of highly reflective snow. "The 'snow' in this case is likely to be frozen molecular nitrogen ice," a hypothesis which New Horizons observations will determine definitively in July, when the spacecraft completes its close flyby.

    "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 Hal Weaver, the mission’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where the New Horizons spacecraft was designed and built, and from where the probe is operated.


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