Latest Pluto Findings Include a Blue Sky Haze and Water Ice

Posted on October 8, 2015

Blue Sky haze on Pluto

The New Horizons team has revealed two more amazing findings with Pluto. New color images reveal a blue sky atmospheric haze around Pluto. Water ice has also been discovered on the surface of Pluto.

The New Horizons teams says the blue high-altitude haze on Pluto is thought to be similar to that seen on Saturn's moon Titan. The sunlight-induced chemical reactions of nitrogen and methane are the source of the haze. The above image was generated using software that replicates the color a human eye would see as closely as possible.

Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), says in a statement, "Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt? It’s gorgeous."

Science team researcher Carly Howett (SwRI) adds, "A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. 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."

Exposed regions of water ice on Pluto

The New Horizons team also revealed the discovery of small, exposed regions of water ice on Pluto. The discovery was made using data from the spacecrafts' Ralph spectral composition mapper. The strongest water ice signatures can be found along Virgil Fossa (left side of the inset image) and Viking Terra (top of the image). A larger version of the water ice image can be found here.

Silvia Protopapa, a science team member from the University of Maryland, says in a statement, "I'm surprised that this water ice is so red. We don't yet understand the relationship between water ice and the reddish tholin colorants on Pluto's surface."