New Horizons is still 70-million miles (113-million km) from Pluto, but the spacecraft starting to see some surface features on the dwarf planet, including a possible ice cap at its pole.

Earlier this month, New Horizons beamed back the first true-color image of Pluto. Now, the spacecraft’s onboard equipment is beginning to resolve actual surface features — and as expected, they appear to be quite complex.


The bright splotch circled on the image below is causing a lot of excitement among NASA’s New Horizon’s team. It’s too early to tell, but it could be indicative of nitrogen ice on the surface — a Plutonian surface feature proposed as far back as 1994. The image was captured using the telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons.


“As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object,” noted John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, in a statement. “As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons.”

Charon is also visible in the image, but in the coming weeks and months, the LORRI camera should start to pick up some of Pluto’s other four moons.

[ NASA ]