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Fleeting Wonders: Psychedelic Pluto

NASA is on a magic mystery tour… for science! (Image: NASA)

For an icy little dwarf planet, Pluto is looking better and better these days—thanks to the New Horizons probe’s fantastic photos. And now Pluto has gone, in NASA’s own words, “psychedelic.”

One of the latest images of Pluto, released on November 12th, shows the dwarf planet not as a monochromatic ball of dirt and ice but as a rainbow-colored acid freakout. There are ranges of electric purple craters here, a rocky field of yellow-green terrain there. Rarely has the much-loved former planet looked so vibrant.

While this spectacular image of Pluto might look like it came from the poster rack of a head shop, there is actual science behind it.

The raw image of Pluto. (Image: NASA on Wikipedia)  

Of course the Pluto does not truly look like a neon nightmare. While the image that was captured by the New Horizons probe is a detailed look at the surface of the cosmic midget, the colors were actually added by NASA scientists. These colors, though, were added to accentuate the actual colors present on Pluto. The Lisa-Frank-In-Space tones correspond to actual different colors on the surface, and were determined using a complicated method known as “principal component analysis.” This mathematical process helped determine what the various, distinct regions on the dwarf planet were, and then the New Horizons scientists filled each one with a different hue like it was an adult coloring book.

The end result is this terrific image that makes the differences on Pluto’s surface much easier to see and identify. As well as being a great desktop background.

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to cara@atlasobscura.com.