Pluto's icy mountains revealed

New images sent back to Earth from the New Horizons mission have surpassed expectations, NASA mission scientists say.

The latest images released by NASA show Pluto's icy mountains in great detail.
All images: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI

NASA’s New Horizons team have released new images of Pluto’s icy mountains and a clear view of its largest moon Charon taken during the spacecraft’s flyby on 14 July.

The Pluto image shows the dwarf planet’s equatorial region near the base of its bright heart-shaped feature, depicting a mountain range with 11,000 feet peaks above the surface.

NASA says they believe the mountains on Pluto formed as recently as 100 million years ago, suggesting the formations could still be geologically active.

"Pluto New Horizons is a true mission of exploration showing us why basic scientific research is so important," says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "The mission has had nine years to build expectations about what we would see during closest approach to Pluto and Charon. Today, we get the first sampling of the scientific treasure collected during those critical moments, and I can tell you it dramatically surpasses those high expectations."

“Home run!” exclaims Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “New Horizons is returning amazing results already. The data look absolutely gorgeous, and Pluto and Charon are just mind blowing."

Mission scientists have also said that, unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto can’t be heated by gravitational interactions with a larger planetary body and so a different process may be creating its rugged landscape. landscape.

“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” says GGI deputy team leader John Spencer at SwRI.



A new view of Pluto’s largest moon Charon (above) shows a varied terrain, but NASA have expressed surprise at a lack of craters. Visible in the image are cliffs and troughs stretching about 1,000km, suggesting widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust. This is likely to be the result of internal geological processes. Images sent back by New Horizons also show a canyon thought to be 7 to 9km deep. In the moon’s north polar region, dark surface markings have a diffuse boundary, suggesting a thin deposit or stain on the surface.



Further observations carried out by New Horizons during the flyby captured four other moons; Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos. Data shows Hydra’s irregular shape (above) and its size, estimated to be about 43 by 33km, as well as the moon’s surface, which scientists say is probably covered with water ice.


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