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NASA releases new photos of ice planet Pluto's surface

Even more spectacular photos of Pluto showing giant ice flows, mountains and craters have been released by NASA. They come from the nuclear-powered spacecraft 'New Horizons,' which flew past the planet in June.

The American space agency NASA published unprecedented super-high-resolution photos of the solar system's remote outer icy planet on Saturday, saying they gave earthlings an "unbelievable" view of its surface.

Each single optic unit or pixel in the photos revealed an area of just 80 meters and viewed together showed a strip of Pluto's surface 80 kilometers (50 miles) in width, NASA said.

Given that Pluto is about 30 times farther away from the sun than Earth, the surface detail delivered (pictured above) was "simply unbelievable," said Alan Stern, New Horizons' leading scientist.

NASA Pluto

Pluto's mountains spew icy water, nitrogen and methane?

"The new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto's geology," Stein said.

'Down among the craters'

"Nothing of this quality was available for Venus or Mars until decades after their first fly-bys; yet at Pluto we're there already - down among the craters, mountains and ice fields," he said.

Initial images in October revealed that Pluto had blue sky, patches of frozen water as well as a rich variety of surface colors.

Tops of mountains had depressions similar to volcanoes found on Earth and Mars, but rather than ejecting molten rock, Pluto's vents appeared to have spewed frozen water and other ice forms such as nitrogen, ammonia and methane.

Deep fractures

Several deep fractures in Pluto's crust were interpreted by scientists as signs that the small planet could have expanded at some point in its history, possibly due to naturally occurring radioactivity in rocky material deep under its surface.

"Nothing like this has ever been seen in the outer solar system," another NASA project scientist Oliver White told Reuters in October.

New Horizons is expected to send more data back to Earth until late next year and is on track to pass through the solar system's Kuiper Belt of icy objects in January 2019.

Early last month, NASA released data from its Mars observatory MAVEN, showing that its atmosphere continues to be stripped away by solar wind. That is prevented on Earth by its own strong magnetic field.

Ipj/jm (Reuters, AFP)

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