CAPE CANAVERAL: NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft has spotted surface features on the icy planet, including a possible polar cap.
With 97 million kilometres left to go before its July 14, 2015 encounter, New Horizons has already been able to make out light and dark patches on the surface of Pluto, which is currently more than 32 times farther away from Earth than the sun.
Scientists have noticed what they believe could be a solar ice cap.
“We are starting to see intriguing features, such as a right region near Pluto’s visible pole,” NASA science chief John Grunsfeld said in a statement.
In the images, Pluto appears as a small, highly pixelated blob, but already scientists can see there is something very odd about its surface.
New Horizons lead scientist with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, Alan Stern, explained the observations to reporters during a conference call.
“It’s rare to see any planet in the solar system, at this low resolution, displaying such strong surface markings,” he said.
“If you had similar images of Mercury, or images of even Mars, you would not see the same kinds of big surface units going by as you do here on Pluto. That’s very promising.”
Because Pluto is tipped on its side, similar to Uranus, New Horizons has a steady gaze on one of its polar regions, which images show is consistently brighter than other areas.
Scientists suspect the pole is covered by a highly reflective cap of nitrogen ice.
New Horizons has been travelling toward Pluto for nine-and-a-half years.
In the meantime, Pluto, which was once considered the ninth and outermost planet in the solar system, was demoted to “dwarf planet” status after scientists discovered other similar icy bodies in the solar system’s backyard.