A new image from New Horizons shows rough ridges resembling reptile skin covering part of Pluto's surface.
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A new image from New Horizons shows rough ridges resembling reptile skin covering part of Pluto's surface.

Pluto’s Colorful, Scaly Terrain Revealed in Detailed Closeups

The more we see of Pluto, the more stunning it gets – and that’s not because we understand what’s going on. It’s the opposite. Rather than neatly fitting pieces into a big, Pluto-shaped puzzle, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is returning data that make it clear just how unbelievably enigmatic this little world is.

That’s why exploring Pluto is so fun.

Images released today are among the most beautifully bizarre we’ve seen so far. There’s a rough, scalloped texture that team members say resembles “dragon scales” or “tree bark,” and this thing that looks like a fossilized brittle star; craters that appear as though they’re filled with pasta sauce; pits that resemble the cantaloupe terrain on Neptune’s moon Triton; long, sinuous canyons that are ruddy in their depths and bright at their rims; and extremely colorful landscapes that make it look as though Pluto’s mountains are bleeding.

How that all works, we don’t know – but if space exploration and planetary science were easy, it would be nowhere near as rewarding.

Understanding Pluto is a lot like climbing a mountain: The satisfaction comes from the struggle it takes to reach the peak. After all, no one writes home about simply driving to a summit — the views might be the same, but the sense of achievement? Not even remotely similar.

Earlier this year, I climbed Kilimanjaro for the first time, and last night, I got back from a few too-short days in the Canadian Rockies. There, bare slabs of rock erupt from tree-covered valleys, their ancient layers outlined by a fresh frosting of snow. Lakes tucked into canyons slowly collect the silty slough of glaciers and snowpack, which turn frigid water into brilliant, unearthly shades of green and blue.

Landscapes like this exert an almost irresistible pull on me. I want to know what it’s like to charge up those slopes and slip through those trees, to meet the boundary where that evergreen carpet lost its battle with gravity, and then to continue going, to tiptoe up to alpine shorelines, trek through alien landscapes and ogle the myriad ways nature sculpts Earth’s stones into craggy gargoyles.

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Zoom in on this high-res image and take a look at that pitted terrain — and those mountains! Wouldn’t they be fun to climb? (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

For me, reaching a summit isn’t the sole motivation for a climb; in fact, on the highest mountains, lingering at the top is downright dangerous. On lower peaks, summits can be nice places to rest and enjoy the view, clouds permitting, but they’re merely markers signifying the end of a particular route (and descents can be more punishing, in many ways).

The tug, for me, comes from the struggle of the journey, in the breathless effort it takes to continue climbing higher and higher, step after burning step. It’s in the challenge of billy-goating through tricky passes and surviving slippery trails, in finding the path through the scree and in putting training and skills to the test.

It’s the same with figuring out Pluto. You have to love the uncertainty and the challenge, accept the questions and mysteries. As images of Pluto come back to Earth, the fun is not in foolproof explanations for how a particular feature came to be, but in the thrill of seeing something for the first time and knowing that right now, we don’t know what it’s doing there. It’s in the need to tinker with theories and revise what we think we know. It’s in allowing science to lead us to answers, as surely as relying on all that training will get us to a summit.

“The short version is, I don’t really know the answer,” team member Will Grundy said to me last week, when images of Pluto’s haze prompted me to ask what a weather forecast would look like on Pluto. He then proceeded to beautifully lay out the logic and the questions we’d need to consider while tackling the problem.

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A closeup view of two isolated mountains on Pluto. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Right now, we’re still on the tree-covered foothills of Pluto, staring at its peak through needled branches and trying to gain the next ridge.

Someday, I would love to be able to tell the story of Pluto — how it took root in the swirling disk of dust and gas that ringed our infant sun and, over millions of years, grew into a mottled, complex world with a giant moon and four smaller, icy companions. When, in Pluto’s history, did its mountains first punch through the exotic ices frosting its surface? How did that even happen? Did Pluto get pummeled by space rocks early in life, and if so, what happened to all the craters from that era? When did Pluto start getting its wrinkles, which look so much like the lines carved into wizened human faces?

What will its next 4.6 billion years be like?

I’m glad I can’t tell that story now, because it means our journey isn’t over. Once we know everything about Pluto (if we ever do), there is no more up. No more adventures, no more unexpected obstacles, no more surprises…until we descend, spend a minute recuperating, and get to work finding another mountain, or another route to Pluto’s peak.