In this extended color image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up along Pluto’s day-night terminator and show intricate but puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between. This view, roughly 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015, and resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).
NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
By Tessa Berenson
September 24, 2015

NASA has received new images of the surface of Pluto from New Horizons, which the organization says resembles “snakeskin.”

The snakeskin photo, taken at the dividing line between day and night, shows new levels of detail in the topography and composition of Pluto.

“It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,” said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis in a NASA release on the images. “It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out.”

Scientists aren’t sure what causes the distinctive pattern. Speculative theories include the possibility of plate tectonics rippling the surface, or frozen gasses that sublime away when the distant sun raises surface temperature slightly. The gasses may then disperse into the thin Plutonian atmosphere and then freeze back down when the dwarf planet moves further from the sun in its elliptical orbit.

Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.berenson@time.com.

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