Pluto Close-Ups Show 'Snakeskin' Texture of Dwarf Planet's Surface


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By Devin Coldewey

NASA has released a new batch of images from the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, showing in the best detail yet the unexpectedly varied texture of the dwarf planet's surface.

"It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out," said William McKinnon, deputy lead of the mission's Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team.

Related: New From New Horizons: 5 Things We Just Found Out About Pluto and Charon

The most striking image has to be the one above, spanning approximately 330 miles of the Tartarus Dorsa mountains. Crossing the view is the terminator, or border between night and day, where the planet's geological features are shown with extraordinary contrast. The regular, aligned features (referred to as "snakeskin" by NASA) suggest some kind of repeating or continuous process, but what that process might be, no one knows. The picture was taken on July 14 but only downlinked to NASA last week.


A panorama taken on the same day shows the border between the flat basin of Sputnik Planum and its rocky outskirts. The flat, desert-looking area is likely frozen methane, while deep-frozen water makes up the rust-colored mountains. (Click to see a larger version)

Yet another amazing image captured on July 14 is this view of the whole planet, showing off the various shades of blue, red and yellow that would be visible to the naked eye — though perhaps not quite so vivid as in this enhanced-color version. You can even see the strip pictured in the panorama above nearly dead center on the globe.


Related: NASA Shows Pluto Flyby Video and Picks Next Destination for New Horizons

More and better images are arriving regularly as New Horizons data continues to be beamed in. The probe itself is millions of miles past Pluto now, approaching the Kuiper Belt — where, if funding allows, it may in a few years have a close (but not too close) encounter with one of the billions of rocky objects that make up the region.