spaceSpace and Physics

Pluto's Frozen Canyons Revealed In Latest Image From New Horizons


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

92 Pluto's Frozen Canyons Revealed In Latest Image From New Horizons

Yes, it’s that time of the week, when we look at the latest stunning data returned from the New Horizons spacecraft from its flyby of Pluto in July 2015. This time around, we get to see in detail some canyons on the surface, further evidence of tectonic activity on the dwarf planet billions of years ago.

The image, taken from a distance of 33,900 kilometers (21,100 miles), shows the north polar region of Pluto, with the North Pole labeled in the image below. It was taken by New Horizons’ Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC).


At first glance, the enhanced color image is immediately noticeable for the brownish-yellow regions, which have a higher elevation than the surrounding bluish-gray regions. The yellow color may be the result of “older methane deposits that have been more processed by solar radiation than the bluer terrain,” Will Grundy, New Horizons composition team leader from Lowell Observatory, said in a statement.

Closer examination of the image then reveals a network of canyons and valleys on the surface. The biggest, shown in yellow below, is about 75 kilometers (47 miles) wide. Running parallel are smaller subsidiary canyons, in green, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) wide. A winding valley in blue is seen at the bottom of the large canyon in yellow, and another further east is shown in pink. 

Interestingly, the walls of the canyons seem to be older and more degraded than others on Pluto, suggesting they are made of a weaker material. Nearby, in red, large pits up to 70 kilometers (43 miles) across and 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) deep can be seen, which may be the result of melting ice that caused the ground to collapse.

This labeled image reveals canyons (yellow and green), valleys (blue and pink), and pits (red) at Pluto's north polar region. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI


The canyons are fascinating because they provide further evidence for tectonic and geologic activity on Pluto. Already we have seen mountains on the surface, and possible cryovolcanoes that spewed ice instead of lava. A rich history of Pluto continues to be painted by these findings.

Owing to the amount of data collected by New Horizons during its flyby, and its relatively low data transfer rate to Earth, images like this stored by the spacecraft will continue to be sent back every week for most of this year. The spacecraft itself is on its way to explore a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) in 2019.


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