Today’s post is written by Alex Parker, a research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, working on NASA’s New Horizons mission.
It’s approaching dusk on an alien world, and the only eyes to witness the scene belong to a machine that has traveled billions of miles to be here at just this moment.
Plutonian landscapes in twilight, under a hazy sky. Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI
Sunlight is filtered through an atmosphere filigreed with layers of haze, and even areas that should be cast into total darkness by the shadows of vast mountains are illuminated by a diffuse glow. Light streaming through gaps between those mountains falls obliquely on a low-lying haze bank, revealing itself as luminous beams in the sky, like those of a dramatic Earthly sunset.
The world is Pluto, the far-from-home machine is New Horizons, the atmosphere is a tenuous skin of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane gases, and the hazes permeating that atmosphere are suspended organic particulates.
Few — if any — of us expected such an alien, remote, and hostile place to look so familiar in twilight.
Hazes by day
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