Images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which flew past Pluto in July 2015, may have revealed clouds hovering above the surface. Earlier images shared publicly by the New Horizons team have already shown off Pluto’s astonishingly composite atmosphere, containing many layers of haze mounting above icy mountains. And now the according to new images and as explained by New Scientist, scientists on the mission discuss the possibility that they have found individual clouds, pointing to an even richer atmospheric variety.
Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The initial indication of clouds came on 13 September last year, a few days before the public announcement of the haze pictures. Will Grundy of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona told New Scientist “There’s a few fairly localized low-altitude features just above the limb that I’ve drawn lame arrows pointing to, but also a few bright cloud-like things that seem to be above and cutting across the topography in the circled area,”
Grundy had found features in the haze on the edge – or “limb” – of Pluto (as marked in image above) that appear to stand out from the different layers. But more interestingly, he had also seen a bright feature crossing different parts of the surface, signifying it was hovering above.
Currently researchers are not sure about what the clouds might be made of. They are likely to be of related composition to the general atmosphere, which according to the New Horizons team’s upcoming Science paper, comprises of nitrogen, with traces of methane, acetylene, ethylene and ethane. Learn more about this here.