The latest spectra from New Horizons Ralph instrument reveal an abundance of methane ice, but with striking differences from place to place across the frozen surface of Pluto.
In the north polar cap, methane ice is diluted in a thick, transparent slab of nitrogen ice resulting in strong absorption of infrared light. In one of the visually dark equatorial patches, the methane ice has shallower infrared absorptions indicative of a very different texture.
An Earthly example of different textures of a frozen substance: a fluffy bank of clean snow is bright white, but compacted polar ice looks blue. New Horizons' surface composition team has begun the intricate process of analyzing Ralph data to determine the detailed compositions of the distinct regions on Pluto.
This is the first detailed image of Pluto from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array, part of the Ralph instrument on New Horizons. The observations were made at three wavelengths of infrared light, which are invisible to the human eye. In this picture, blue corresponds to light of wavelengths 1.62 to 1.70 micrometers, a channel covering a medium-strong absorption band of methane ice, green (1.97 to 2.05 micrometers) represents a channel where methane ice does not absorb light, and red (2.30 to 2.33 micrometers) is a channel where the light is very heavily absorbed by methane ice. The two areas outlined on Pluto show where Ralph observations obtained the spectral traces at the right. Note that the methane absorptions (notable dips) in the spectrum from the northern region are much deeper than the dips in the spectrum from the dark patch. The Ralph data were obtained by New Horizons on July 12, 2015.
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.