In this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15, 2015, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo.
This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image, delivered to Earth on July 23, 2015, is displayed with north at the top of the frame.
Speeding away from Pluto just seven hours after its July 14 closest approach, the New Horizons spacecraft aimed its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) back at Pluto and captured this spectacular image of Pluto’s atmosphere, backlit by the sun.
The image, capturing sunlight streaming through the atmosphere, reveals hazes as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface, several times higher than scientists predicted. A preliminary analysis of the image shows two distinct layers of haze –one about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface and the other at an altitude of about 30 miles (50 kilometers).
“My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado. “It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries – it brings incredible beauty.”
Studying Pluto’s atmosphere provides clues as to what’s happening below. “The hazes detected in this image are a key element in creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto’s surface its reddish hue,” said Michael Summers, a New Horizons co-investigator from George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.
Models suggest that the hazes form when ultraviolet sunlight breaks apart methane gas, a simple hydrocarbon known to reside throughout Pluto’s atmosphere. 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.
Scientists had previously calculated that temperatures would be too warm for hazes to form at altitudes higher than 20 miles (30 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. With New Horizons detecting hazes at up to 80 miles (130 kilometers), “We’re going to need some new ideas to figure out what’s going on,” said Summers.