New Horizons captured a hauntingly beautiful image of Pluto’s far side backlit by the sun.
The latest image revealed from NASA’s historic flyby of Pluto casts the dwarf planet in a completely new light. The image, captured shortly after New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto, shows a halo of light surrounding the dwarf planet.
The image was captured as Pluto eclipsed the sun, allowing its atmosphere to be revealed, and creating a stunning silhouette of the dwarf planet. The halo around Pluto is the result of light from the sun scattering off of the dwarf planet’s thin, cold atmosphere.
The silhouette of Pluto was captured by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on board New Horizons just 7 hours after the spacecraft made its closest approach on July 14. The image was taken at a distance of 1.25 million miles from the dwarf planet and can resolve structures as small as 12 miles wide.
“This is our equivalent of Apollo’s Earthrise image,” New Horizons principle investigator Alan Stern said during a press conference on Friday.
“My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said in a statement. “It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries–it brings incredible beauty.”
New Horizons has discovered that the haze extends 100 miles above Pluto’s surface, five times higher than expected. Previously, scientists had estimated that temperatures would be too warm for hazes to form at altitudes above 20 miles. Initial examination of the image shows two distinct layers of haze; one approximately 30 miles above the surface and the other an at altitude of about 50 miles.
“The hazes detected in this image are a key element in creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto’s surface its reddish hue,” New Horizons co-investigator Michael Summers said in a statement. [Read more: On The Verge Of Pluto: Interview With New Horizons Co-Investigator Michael Summers]
“Models suggest that the hazes form when ultraviolet sunlight breaks apart methane gas, a simple hydrocarbon known to reside throughout Pluto’s atmosphere,” NASA said in a press release. “The breakdown of methane triggers the buildup of more complex hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene and acetylene, which were also discovered at Pluto by New Horizons.”
“As these hydrocarbons fall to the lower, colder parts of the atmosphere, they condense as ice particles, forming the hazes. Ultraviolent sunlight chemically converts hazes into tholins, the dark hydrocarbons that color Pluto’s surface,” NASA added.
Editor’s Note: This story will be updated as new information becomes available.