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New Nasa pics show changing face of Pluto - PHOTO

08 February 2010 [12:58] - TODAY.AZ
The most detailed pictures ever taken of Pluto have shown the former planet has a mottled white, orange and charcoal black surface.
The most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope

Pluto, which sits on the outer edge of our solar system, is so distant and small its surface has long been a puzzle to astronomers.

But the Nasa images taken by the Hubble Telescope suggest the planet undergoes seasonal changes just like Earth.

Compared with older photographs it also appears Pluto, which was downgraded to a dwarf planet in 2006, has become significantly more red.

Astronomers believe this is most likely the result of surface ice melting on Pluto's sunlit northern hemisphere and then refreezing on the other pole.

Nasa believes ultraviolet radiation from the distant sun is breaking up methane on the surface, leaving behind a dark and red carbon-rich residue.

The remarkable colour shift, which apparently took place between 2000 and 2002, confirms Pluto is a dynamic world undergoing dramatic atmospheric changes and not simply a ball of ice and rock, according to the US space agency.

The images will not be bettered until the New Horizons craft flies past Pluto in 2015

However, although affected by its heat, Pluto is so far from the sun it takes 248 years to orbit it.

The new pictures are the best view we will have of Pluto until a space probe called New Horizons flies past it in 2015.

The £400m spacecraft - the fastest ever sent into the solar system - reached Jupiter just a year after launch.

Marc Buie, of the Southwest Research Institute in the western US city of Boulder, Colorado, led the examinations of the images.

"The Hubble pictures are proving invaluable for picking out the planet's most interesting-looking hemisphere for the New Horizons spacecraft to swoop over when it flies by Pluto in 2015," he said.

"Though Pluto is arguably one of the public's favorite planetary objects, it is also the hardest of which to get a detailed portrait because the world is small and very far away."

Pluto's surface appears to be changing more than the surfaces of other bodies in the solar system, surprising astronomers because a season lasts 120 years in some regions of the dwarf planet.

/Sky News/

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