Data Reveal Ice Mountains on Pluto

Data Reveal Ice Mountains on Pluto

The scientific data being received from the New Horizons spacecraft are giving scientists a lot to think about.  Only a small amount has made to back to Earth, but it is revolutionizing theories about Pluto and its moons.

At a press conference this afternoon at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHUAPL) in Laurel, MD, which is operating the spacecraft, Principal Investigator (PI) Alan Stern and other team members showed some of the imagery obtained yesterday as New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto.   The imagery for Pluto is 10 times better resolution than what was released yesterday and the image the scientists focused on today is just a small part of it, slightly to the left of the center at the bottom.

Surface of Pluto.  Imagery from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.  Photo credit: NASA 

Among the “astonishing” aspects of the image is that there are no impact craters, meaning that geological processes on the planet are ongoing and creating a new surface.  John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) said the surface may be only 1 million years old, whereas the solar system is 4.5 billion years old.   Also, there are mountains on the surface. At the moment, they speculate they are made of water ice.

Spencer said that means Pluto is the first icy world that is not orbiting another planet (like Jupiter and Saturn) and the surface features therefore are not the result of tidal heating (from interaction with the large planet).  That will “send geophysicists back to the drawing board,” Stern exclaimed.

Surprising information was also revealed about Pluto’s moon Charon.  It, too, has a young surface with many features including canyons, but not the craters they’d expected from billions of years of collisions with other objects. New Horizons deputy PI Cathy Olkin said the image “blew our socks off.” 

Pluto’s moon Charon.  Image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.  Photo credit: NASA

Pluto was discovered by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh and the heart-shaped region that appears in the image released yesterday has been named Tombaugh Regio in his honor.

Much more data is yet to be received on Earth and scientific analysis takes time, so stay tuned for more results.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.