With an orbital period of 248 Earth years, the Pluto’s winters can last decades. Now data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is providing insight into how much water ice the dwarf holds on it’s surface.
Scientists created a map using data collected during Pluto’s flyby last July. The map shows exposed water ice to be considerably more widespread across Pluto’s surface than was previously known.
Water ice on Pluto is like rock on Earth. It forms towering, jagged mountains to sweeping, pitted valleys. Water ice is Pluto’s crustal “bedrock,” the canvas on which its more volatile ices paint their seasonally changing patterns.
The map shows little or no water ice in the informally named places called Sputnik Planum (the left or western region of Pluto’s “heart”) and Lowell Regio (far north on the encounter hemisphere). This indicates that at least in these regions, Pluto’s icy bedrock is well hidden beneath a thick blanket of other ices such as methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide.
New Horizons launched on Jan. 19, 2006 and conducted a six-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons in summer 2015, culminating with Pluto closest approach on July 14, 2015. As part of an extended mission, the spacecraft is expected to head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine another of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region, at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.