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News Release 205 of 950

February 4, 2010 01:00 PM (EST)

News Release Number: STScI-2010-06

New Hubble Maps of Pluto Show Surface Changes

New Hubble Maps of Pluto Show Surface ChangesGo to image download page Go to video downloads page

February 4, 2010: Since its discovery in 1930, Pluto has been a speck of light in the largest ground-based telescopes. But NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has now mapped the dwarf planet in never-before-seen detail. The new map is so good, astronomers have even been able to detect changes on the dwarf planet's surface by comparing Hubble images taken in 1994 with the newer images taken in 2002-2003. The task is as challenging as trying to see the markings on a soccer ball 40 miles away.

Hubble's view isn't sharp enough to see craters or mountains, if they exist on the surface, but Hubble reveals a complex-looking and variegated world with white, dark-orange, and charcoal-black terrain. The overall color is believed to be a result of ultraviolet radiation from the distant Sun breaking up methane that is present on Pluto's surface, leaving behind a dark, molasses-colored, carbon-rich residue. Astronomers were very surprised to see that Pluto's brightness has changed — the northern pole is brighter and the southern hemisphere is darker and redder. Summer is approaching Pluto's north pole, and this may cause surface ices to melt and refreeze in the colder shadowed portion of the planet. The Hubble pictures underscore that Pluto is not simply a ball of ice and rock but a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes.

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Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute)