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Breathtaking image shows Pluto with an atmospheric halo

NASA describes the latest images of Pluto collected by its New Horizons mission as the “equivalent of the Apollo Earth rise photo that proved we were there.” (Video: Reuters)

Hello, gorgeous!

The latest image from NASA's Pluto flyby shows the dwarf planet backlit by the sun, as captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it sped into the Kuiper Belt on July 15. The halo around Pluto is created by its atmosphere.

According to NASA scientists, the haze around Pluto is up to 80 miles high, made up of two distinct layers -- one about 50 miles above the surface and the other at an altitude of about 30 miles.

[New Horizons spots ice flows on Pluto’s surface]

“My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt,” New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said in a statement. “It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries -- it brings incredible beauty.”

"You could only get this image by going to Pluto, crossing to the far side, and looking back," Stern said at a news conference on Friday.

NASA scientists believe that the hazes form when sunlight breaks apart methane gas. Methane, which is a simple hydrocarbon, produces more complex hydrocarbons when it breaks down. These hydrocarbons -- ethylene and acetylene -- fall down into the lower, colder regions of the atmosphere and form ice particles.

These icy complex hydrocarbons, when exposed to more sunlight, form tholins -- dark hydrocarbons that give Pluto's surface its dark red hues.

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