The New Frontiers program keeps finding new things in our cosmos. NASA scientists have received a new batch of data from the New Horizons space probe. The spacecraft sent images revealing potential cloud formations above the surface of Pluto.
The New Horizons’ findings follow other exploration efforts by the New Frontiers mission. Recently, the Juno probe set for Jupiter delayed a pivotal maneuver to keep track of the spacecraft’s performance. Nonetheless, NASA scientists have rescheduled Juno’s Jupiter approach for mid-December.
A different team of researchers detected signals of potential water plumes on Jupiter’s Moon Europa using NASA’s Hubble Telescope. Scientists have also used the Hubble to find out more about New Horizons’ next target, the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69. It’s worth mentioning that NASA’s New Horizons will fly by the frozen body on January 1, 2019.
Pluto has a complex atmosphere, yet clouds may form temporarily
New Horizons’ latest batch of data delivered clearer images of Pluto’s surface following the probe’s flyby of the dwarf planet back in July 2015. Some of these new pictures revealed “bright features” that may or may not be clouds on the icy world.
Alan Stern, New Frontiers principal investigator in Boulder Colorado, explained in detail the possible discoveries based on the images from the New Horizons probe.
“If there are clouds, it would mean the weather on Pluto is even more complex than we imagined. We don’t see any decks or banks of clouds. We see individual, discrete potential cloud features,” Stern said in a statement.
Scientists had previously observed and inferred that the atmosphere on Pluto was complex and that it had multiple layers. The new images shed further light on the matter, suggesting that these features could be traces of elements like hydrogen cyanide, ethane, and acetylene.
When Alan Stern referred to “complex weather,” he meant the conditions under which these potential clouds might have been formed. Scientists determined how the bright features depicted in the images of New Horizons all occurred near the terminator.
Days in Pluto last almost a week in Earth days, and like planet Earth, the condensation process is more likely to happen when temperatures drop or rise. In other words, potential clouds may form only at dawn and dusk in Pluto.
New Horizons is currently on its way to reaching the Kuiper Belt, a group of objects surrounding our Solar System beyond the orbit of Neptune. There, it will fly by 2014 MU69 and send data from the cold object. It has still 1 billion kilometers to travel until January 1, 2019.
The New Horizons probe has yet to send one last batch of data next week from last year’s Pluto flyby. The spacecraft is approximately 5.5 billion kilometers away from Earth, and it will be the first probe to explore a celestial body discovered during its mission course.