NASA's New Horizons Finds Widespread Water Ice on Pluto's Surface

Tuesday, 02 February 2016 - 11:18AM
Space
Solar System
Tuesday, 02 February 2016 - 11:18AM
NASA's New Horizons Finds Widespread Water Ice on Pluto's Surface
NASA's New Horizons team has been studying data from Pluto ever since the historic flyby last summer, and they've just made another landmark discovery about our former ninth planet. As it turns out, Pluto is covered in reserves of water ice, far more widespread than previously thought.

Pluto

The above false color images, created from two scans by New Horizons' Ralph/Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument on July 14, 2015, shows where spectral water ice is abundant. The photos were taken from about 67,000 miles away, and were then used to create a data cube, or a 3-dimensional array that models Pluto from each LIESA-sensitive wavelength.

The map on the left represents a comparison of the LEISA spectra with the spectral signature pure water ice, which doesn't necessarily comprehensively represent the water ice on Pluto, as the signature is easily masked by other types of ice, such as methane. So the map on the left only shows the areas that have a particularly concentration of water ice or a particularly low concentration of methane.

The map on the right is much more sensitive to water ice, and takes into account all of the different kinds of ices on Pluto. As can be seen in the image, the new data shows that water ice virtually covers the dwarf planet, or at the very least (since this method isn't without its flaws either), it is much more prevalent than initially believed. According to NASA, this shows that water ice is the crustal "bedrock" of Pluto, or that it is the static "canvas" on which other, more volatile ices seasonally vary across the surface.

However, there are some notable exceptions to this rule. The Sputnik Planum, or the west side of Pluto's "heart," still seems to be devoid of ice, as well as the Lowell Regio, or the far north region. This likely means that these regions are covered in ice composed of gases like methane, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide.
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