These Hi-Res Images of Pluto Are a Giant Leap for Space Exploration

Thanks, New Horizons. You're our favorite deep-space, Pluto-passing probe.

You might remember a few months ago the internet was abuzz because a piano-shaped chunk of metal launched nine years prior had finally reached Pluto and was sending back some pretty cool photos. The dwarf planet, so far away that our previous best image of it looked like a power-up from Doom II, finally had a face we could recognize. The New Horizons probe rekindled interest in Pluto, stoked our collective wonder, and launched a thousand heart-shaped memes:


Of course, as is wont to occur, the New Horizons buzz waned as our attention shifted to the other stigma: dead lionsreligious uproar, and flashy acts of buffoonery. Meanwhile, NASA has kept its foot on the gas — its researchers working tirelessly to dig through all the exciting stuff the spacecraft has sent back. Yesterday the agency released a fresh batch of new Pluto images to once again pique our interest and inspire a sense of wonder. I mean — seriously — we sent a piano-shaped chunk of metal to Pluto! I still can't get over that.

Below are the photos. Here is the NASA post for more info on each. Credit for the images goes to NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Close-up of Pluto's now-famous heart.


This 300-mile wide swath of "jumbled terrain" portrays the surprising diversity of Pluto's surface features. More on that below.


This is Charon, Pluto's largest satellite. It's about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) in diameter, which means it would fit snugly into the space between New York and Chicago.

Astronomers have noted that these images reveal as many mysteries as they solve with regard to Pluto's geography and origin. For example, the planet's surface displays a diversity of land features beyond what most scientists expected. The photo below shows what appears to be a cluster of dunes beside a cluster of craters butted up against a cluster of mountainous masses. That's a lot of clusters for a small dwarf planet! How all this came to be is currently unknown given that Pluto's atmosphere is extremely thin and thus lacks the oomph necessary to develop these sorts of geographic characteristics. 

If you're gearing for additional photos, you're in luck: We can expect a whole lot more of these images in the coming year. The Guardian explains why:

"These new images are part of a 16-month download that began last weekend. Because New Horizons is so far away, more than 5 billion kilometres, data trickles back hundreds of thousands of times more slowly than over a fibre optic broadband on Earth.

More revelations and surprises are expected as the data continues to arrive."

We can't wait.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.