NASA New Horizons probe reveals icy mountains on Pluto as first photos return

July 16th, 2015 by Staff

(smh.com.au)

On Thursday morning, NASA released what the world, especially the space science world, had been waiting for: an image from New Horizons’ closest encounter with the dwarf planet on Tuesday evening.

NASA promised big things, and the picture delivered. A close-up of a section of Pluto’s heart-shaped region showed ice mountains “like the Rockies” more than 3000 metres high.

“You could see the APL campus on this kind of image,” said John Spencer, New Horizons co-investigator, at a press conference at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

“The most striking thing is that we have not found any impact craters [in this region],” Dr Spencer said.

“I would never have believed it,” he said.

This means the surface is very young, no more than 100 million years old.

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons geology, geophysics and imaging team.

“I would never have believed it,” he said.

This means the surface is very young, no more than 100 million years old.

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons geology, geophysics and imaging team.

The mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern, said the heart-shaped region, the brightest part of the dwarf planet, had been named “Tombaugh Reggio”, after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the planet in 1930.

The science team saved the best to last, only revealing the stunning new Pluto close-up after showing images of Pluto’s small moon Hydra and a close-up of Charon.

The dwarf planet’s largest moon is about 1200 kilometres across, roughly the distance between Sydney and Bundaberg.

The team were surprised to learn Charon has few craters.

Cathy Olkin, from the Southwest Research Institute, said its surface was surprisingly youthful, reshaped by geological activity.

The darkish region of Charon’s north pole has been nicknamed Mordor.

The reddish area around the pole suggested it could be covered by a thin veneer of dark material, she said.

A deep canyon on the top right of the moon is thought to be between six and 14 kilometres deep.

“Charon blew our socks off,” said Dr Olkin.

New Horizons is now more than a day past Pluto.

The probe communicated with the Earth on Wednesday evening to perform a science ”data pass” from five of its seven instruments.

This included the first well-resolved images of one of Pluto’s four small moons, the potato-shaped Hydra.

Before the mission, scientists had no idea about Hydra’s size or dimensions, project scientist Hal Weaver said.

Now they believe it is about 43 by 33 kilometres.

“Its surface is primarily water ice. That’s cool,” he said.

Data from Pluto will help scientists understand the formation of the Earth-moon system.


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