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New Pluto images arrive: Are those dunes?

New Horizons, the spacecraft that keeps on giving, sent back more shots of Pluto, and they're the sharpest yet.

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    This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles across. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, from a distance of 50,000 miles.
    NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
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    Mosaic of high-resolution images of Pluto, sent back from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft from Sept. 5 to 7. The image is dominated by the informally-named icy plain Sputnik Planum, the smooth, bright region across the center. This image also features a tremendous variety of other landscapes surrounding Sputnik. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles in size, and the mosaic covers a region roughly 1,000 miles wide. The image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, from a distance of 50,000 miles.
    NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
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    In the center of this 300-mile wide image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is a large region of jumbled, broken terrain on the northwestern edge of the vast, icy plain informally called Sputnik Planum, to the right. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles in size. This image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, from a distance of 50,000 miles.
    NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
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    This 220-mile wide view of Pluto from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft illustrates the incredible diversity of surface reflectivities and geological landforms on the dwarf planet. The image includes dark, ancient heavily cratered terrain; bright, smooth geologically young terrain; assembled masses of mountains; and an enigmatic field of dark, aligned ridges that resemble dunes; its origin is under debate. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles in size. This image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles.
    NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
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The trove of images of Pluto captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is getting even larger – and more detailed. The latest round of photos shows the dwarf planets surface in the sharpest detail yet. 

The spacecraft sent some images back immediately after its historic flyby of Pluto on July 14, but the majority were stored for later transmission.

The sheer amount of data captured by New Horizons, coupled with the roughly 3 billion mile distance it must travel, means it could take a full year for the craft to complete transmission, according to Space.com. The latest arrivals offer stunning views of some of Pluto's craters, but New Horizons researchers are even more excited about what's still to come.

"What’s coming is not just the remaining 95 percent of the data that’s still aboard the spacecraft – it’s the best data sets, the highest-resolution images and spectra, the most important atmospheric data sets and more," Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator, said in a statement. "It’s a treasure trove."

The close-up, never-before-seen images are already painting Pluto in a new light. The new images show Pluto’s surface at resolutions of 440 yards per pixel. New, diverse features of the planet are distinguishable, including a twilight view of Pluto – the dwarf planet’s global atmospheric haze illuminates the surface at night, allowing further visibility.

“If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top — but that’s what is actually there,” Dr. Stern said in the NASA press release.

One shot suggests that Pluto's icy plains might even include dunes, a geological feature that scientists did not expect to find.

“Seeing dunes on Pluto – if that is what they are – would be completely wild, because Pluto’s atmosphere today is so thin,” said William B. McKinnon, a GGI deputy lead from Washington University, St. Louis in the NASA release. “Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we haven’t figured out is at work. It’s a head-scratcher.”

New Horizons also captured images of Pluto’s moons Charon, Nix, and Hydra. Those images should arrive Friday and be released to the public.

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