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Stunning NASA image reveals Pluto's mysterious icy plains

July 18, 2015 03:30 IST

A view of icy, frozen plains on Pluto. Photograph: NASA

Smooth, icy plains have been spotted on the surface of Pluto, in the latest images released on Friday from a NASA spacecraft that flew by the dwarf planet this week.

The plains are located north of Pluto's icy mountains, in the centre-left of the heart shape that NASA has named the Tombaugh Region after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.

The area is lined with troughs that resemble frozen mud cracks on Earth.

There are no apparent craters, despite Pluto being in the Kuiper Belt, which scientists have described as a shooting gallery of cosmic debris.

NASA says the plain is no more than 100 million years old, and that Pluto is still being shaped by active geological processes.

But just what those processes are remains a mystery.

“This terrain is not easy to explain,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team at NASA's AmesResearchCenter in Moffett Field, California.

There are two theories being considered.

Perhaps the plains were shaped by the contraction of surface materials, similar to what happens when mud dries, said NASA.

Or, they could be formed by a process called convection whereby some kind of heat from Pluto's interior reshapes the surface layer of frozen carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen.