Scientists have discovered something amazing happening with Pluto’s atmosphere. Researchers have discovered that, when the Sun was right behind Pluto, the haze in Pluto's nitrogen atmosphere differs in brightness, generating a flaring effect that almost make it seems like the surface of the Pluto is rippling. Researchers know this because NASA's New Horizons probe was fortunate enough to witness this very scene when it made its flyby of the dwarf planet last year, and it caught this rippling effect in the animation you can see below.
So what's really on here? According to NASA, the coatings of haze that make up Pluto's mainly nitrogen-based atmosphere can contrast in brightness liable on illumination and your viewpoint. But these layers uphold their whole structure in the atmosphere, that’s what make this more interesting. So what's happening behind this crazy light show?
New Horizons scientists believe that rippling effect could be cause by gravity waves – these gravity waves are not THE gravitational waves that you probably have been hearing about during the past few months. These gravity waves are also known as buoyancy waves, it is an atmospheric phenomenon that happens on Earth and Mars (and now, apparently, Pluto). They effect from airflow over mountains, NASA explains:
"As the name implies, atmospheric gravity waves form when buoyancy pushes air up, and gravity pulls it back down."
The backlit images that create the animation you see here were caught by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) as the spacecraft left Pluto on 14 July 2015. According to the gravity waves – if that certainly is what's triggering the flaring to take place – make the brightness in the haze vary by about 30 percent.
But regardless of the fluctuating form, the haze itself inhabits the same space and keeps its height – spreading to an altitude of nearly 200 kilometres (120 miles) above Pluto's surface.
Although there's still a lot we have to learn about Pluto's atmosphere, we're finding out more all the time, all because of New Horizons. New Horizons is still transferring data back to Earth, even though the flyby occurred several months ago.
And the findings like these will keep on coming, too, as the observations are projected to take a full 16 months to transfer in total. LORRI principal investigator Andy Cheng, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said:
"Pluto is simply amazing. When I first saw these images and the haze structures that they reveal, I knew we had a new clue to the nature of Pluto's hazes. The fact that we don't see the haze layers moving up or down will be important to future modelling efforts."