Scientists Mystified By Pluto’s ‘Snakeskin’ Appearance

It wooed the world with its “heart” in July. Now the dwarf planet Pluto is astonishing scientists with a newly revealed “snakeskin” landscape stretching for hundreds of miles.

The discovery announced Thursday is the latest to come from images taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which traveled more than 3 billion miles for nine years to capture detailed images of Pluto. The spacecraft has in recent months provided the first images of Pluto that show it as something more than a bright blotch in the sky.

William McKinnon, a deputy lead on the New Horizons project from Washington University in St. Louis, said the snakeskin texture remains a mystery.

“It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,” he said in a NASA press release. “It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.”

Other images released Thursday include the highest resolution color image of Pluto ever captured.

The images were taken by New Horizons’ wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera, or MVIC.

“We used MVIC’s infrared channel to extend our spectral view of Pluto,” said John Spencer, a deputy lead on the project from the Southwest Research Institute. “Pluto’s surface colors were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode.”

In July, images from the spacecraft revealed a heart shape on Pluto, much to the amusement of everyone — including the folks behind New Horizons’ Twitter account.