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NASA Discovers Eerie-Looking Veil Of Ice Haze Floating Over Pluto

(CBS SF) -- NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has given humanity a spectacular new look at Pluto, with each photo divulging fresh information about the mysterious icy world 4.67 billion miles away from Earth.

The photo NASA released on Friday certainly did not disappoint. New Horizons aimed its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager at Pluto as it sped away from the planet seven hours after it's July 14 approach. It captured sunlight streaming through the atmosphere revealing hazes as high as 80 miles above Pluto's surface.

"With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

The preliminary analysis of the frigid-looking photo shows two layers of haze separated by about 20 miles -- clues as to what's happening on the ground.

"The hazes detected in this image are a key element in creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto's surface its reddish hue," said Michael Summers, New Horizons co-investigator.

Flying over Pluto's icy plains and Hillary Mountains by NASA Video on YouTube

Data suggests the distinct hazes form when ultraviolet sunlight breaks up methane gas particles leading to the buildup of more complex hydrocarbon gases which fall to the lower, colder parts of the atmosphere and voilà -- form the ice particles that create the hazes.

This is a significant discovery considering scientists had previously thought temperatures would be too warm for hazes to form at altitudes higher than 20 miles above Pluto's surface.

But new questions bring us closer to unraveling Pluto's history while teaching us more about our own planet.

As Summers said, "we're going to need some new ideas to figure out what's going on."

Nicole Jones is a digital producer for CBS San Francisco. Follow her musings @nicjonestweets

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