How NASA captured 'surprising' photo of Pluto during Solar System exploration

In 2006, NASA launched its New Horizons interplanetary space probe, with the primary mission to complete a flyby of Pluto. Nine years later, on July 14, 2015, it flew 7,800 miles above the surface of the dwarf planet, in the closest encounter. On October 25, 2016, it finished its mission and manoeuvred on to study an object in the Kuiper belt.

However, Brian Cox revealed during his BBC show “The Planets” how it had an amazing surprise for scientists back on Earth.

He said last month: “New Horizon’s closest encounter with Pluto lasted just hours.

“During that, only one hemisphere was visible, leaving the other side a mystery. 

“Pluto held a final surprise.

“As New Horizons turned its cameras back for one last look.

“It captured an image of Pluto’s atmosphere, glowing in the dark.

“A thin, blue sky over a hidden ocean of water, 4.8 billion kilometres from Earth.”

New Horizons discovered the atmosphere of Pluto consists of mainly nitrogen and minor traces of methane and carbon dioxide, all of which are vaporised from the ice on Pluto’s surface.

It contains layered haze, probably consisting of heavier compounds which form from these gases due to high-energy radiation.

The probe also measured the surface pressure and found it to be roughly 10,000 times less than Earth’s atmospheric pressure.

The temperature on the surface can reach -230C, but it quickly grows with altitude due to the methane-generated greenhouse effect.

Brian Cox revealed how another probe – Voyager – also made a surprising discovery near the planet Neptune.

He said during the same series: “Voyager 2 had almost completed its grand tour of the Solar System. 

“But before it began its lonely journey out to interstellar space, it had one last world to visit. 

“Triton, a vast moon covered in a sheen of frozen nitrogen. 

“We expected it to be a silent, still world, but Voyager was in for one last surprise.” 

Dr Cox went on to reveal how NASA was left stunned by what their probe discovered. 

He added: “When Voyager arrived, we saw geological activity on that frozen world, we saw geysers erupting up into space eight kilometres high. 

“Then they carried dark material 100 kilometres downwind. 

“Now the key to understanding what process caused those eruptions was that we noticed the geysers tended to erupt on a place on Triton’s surface below the faint Sun, even though it’s billions of miles away. 

“What is happening in the sunlight is falling on the thin layer of nitrogen ice, going through and heating up a layer of darker particles a metre below the surface.”  

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