Icy mountains on Pluto and a new, crisp view of its largest moon, Charon, are among the several discoveries announced Wednesday by NASA's New Horizons team, just one day after the spacecraft’s first ever Pluto flyby.
"Pluto New Horizons is a true mission of exploration showing us why basic scientific research is so important," said 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!” said 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."
A new close-up image of an equatorial region near the base of Pluto’s bright heart-shaped feature shows a mountain range with peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.
The mountains on Pluto likely formed no more than 100 million years ago -- mere youngsters in a 4.56-billion-year-old solar system. This suggests the close-up region, which covers about one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.
“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 (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous 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.
The new view of Charon reveals a youthful and varied terrain. Scientists are surprised by the apparent lack of craters. A swath of cliffs and troughs stretching about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) suggests widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust, likely the result of internal geological processes. The image also shows a canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles (7 to 9 kilometers) deep. In Charon’s north polar region, the dark surface markings have a diffuse boundary, suggesting a thin deposit or stain on the surface.
New Horizons also observed the smaller members of the Pluto system, which includes four other moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos. A new sneak-peak image of Hydra is the first to reveal its apparent irregular shape and its size, estimated to be about 27 by 20 miles (43 by 33 kilometers).
The observations also indicate Hydra's surface is probably coated with water ice. Future images will reveal more clues about the formation of this and the other moon billions of years ago. Spectroscopic data from New Horizons’ Ralph instruments reveal an abundance of methane ice, but with striking differences among regions across the frozen surface of Pluto.
After a journey spanning more than a decade and three billion miles human kind has finally arrived at the planet farthest from Earth - Pluto. New Horizons reached Pluto on Tuesday and today we expect the first more detailed images of the planet that has captured the imagination since its discovery last century.
“I’m delighted at this latest accomplishment by NASA, another first that demonstrates once again how the United States leads the world in space,” said John Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “New Horizons is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including multiple missions orbiting and exploring the surface of Mars in advance of human visits still to come; the remarkable Kepler mission to identify Earth-like planets around stars other than our own; and the DSCOVR satellite that soon will be beaming back images of the whole Earth in near real-time from a vantage point a million miles away. As New Horizons completes its flyby of Pluto and continues deeper into the Kuiper Belt, NASA's multifaceted journey of discovery continues."
“The exploration of Pluto and its moons by New Horizons represents the capstone event to 50 years of planetary exploration by NASA and the United States," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Once again we have achieved a historic first. The United States is the first nation to reach Pluto, and with this mission has completed the initial survey of our solar system, a remarkable accomplishment that no other nation can match.”
Per the plan, the spacecraft currently is in data-gathering mode and not in contact with flight controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Scientists are waiting to find out whether New Horizons “phones home,” transmitting to Earth a series of status updates that indicate the spacecraft survived the flyby and is in good health. The “call” is expected shortly after 9 p.m. EDT tonight.
Image: Pluto and Charon side by side NASA
The Pluto story began only a generation ago when young Clyde Tombaugh was tasked to look for Planet X, theorized to exist beyond the orbit of Neptune. He discovered a faint point of light that we now see as a complex and fascinating world.
"Pluto was discovered just 85 years ago by a farmer's son from Kansas, inspired by a visionary from Boston, using a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Today, science takes a great leap observing the Pluto system up close and flying into a new frontier that will help us better understand the origins of the solar system.”
New Horizons’ flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an up-close introduction to the solar system's Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system.
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, says the mission now is writing the textbook on Pluto.
"The New Horizons team is proud to have accomplished the first exploration of the Pluto system,” Stern said. “This mission has inspired people across the world with the excitement of exploration and what humankind can achieve.”
New Horizons’ almost 10-year, three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 36-by-57 mile (60 by 90 kilometers) window in space -- the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.
Because New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched – hurtling through the Pluto system at more than 30,000 mph, a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could incapacitate the spacecraft. Once it reestablishes contact Tuesday night, it will take 16 months for New Horizons to send its cache of data – 10 years’ worth -- back to Earth.
New Horizons is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including multiple rovers exploring the surface of Mars, the Cassini spacecraft that has revolutionized our understanding of Saturn and the Hubble Space Telescope, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. All of this scientific research and discovery is helping to inform the agency’s plan to send American astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s.
How Big Is Pluto? New Horizons Settles Decades-Long Debate
“After nearly 15 years of planning, building, and flying the New Horizons spacecraft across the solar system, we’ve reached our goal,” said project manager Glen Fountain at APL. “The bounty of what we’ve collected is about to unfold.”
A portrait from the final approach. Pluto and Charon display striking color and brightness contrast in this composite image from July 11, showing high-resolution black-and-white LORRI images colorized with Ralph data collected from the last rotation of Pluto. Color data being returned by the spacecraft now will update these images, bringing color contrast into sharper focus.
NASA’s New Horizons mission has answered one of the most basic questions about Pluto—its size.
Mission scientists have found Pluto to be 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers) in diameter, somewhat larger than many prior estimates. Images acquired with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were used to make this determination. This result confirms what was already suspected: Pluto is larger than all other known solar system objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.
“The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” said mission scientist Bill McKinnon, Washington University, St. Louis.
Pluto’s newly estimated size means that its density is slightly lower than previously thought, and the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher. Also, the lowest layer of Pluto’s atmosphere, called the troposphere, is shallower than previously believed.
Measuring Pluto’s size has been a decades-long challenge due to complicating factors from its atmosphere. Its largest moon Charon lacks a substantial atmosphere, and its diameter was easier to determine using ground-based telescopes. New Horizons observations of Charon confirm previous estimates of 751 miles (1208 km) kilometers) across
LORRI has also zoomed in on two of Pluto’s smaller moons, Nix and Hydra.
“We knew from the time we designed our flyby that we would only be able to study the small moons in detail for just a few days before closest approach,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “Now, deep inside Pluto’s sphere of influence, that time has come.”
Nix and Hydra were discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005. Even to Hubble, they appeared as points of light, and that’s how they looked to New Horizons until the final week of its approach to Pluto. Now, the latest LORRI images show the two diminutive satellites not as pinpoints, but as moons seen well enough to measure their sizes. Nix is estimated to be about 20 miles (about 35 kilometers) across, while Hydra is roughly 30 miles (roughly 45 kilometers) across. These sizes lead mission scientists to conclude that their surfaces are quite bright, possibly due to the presence of ice.
What about Pluto’s two smallest moons, Kerberos and Styx? Smaller and fainter than Nix and Hydra, they are harder to measure. Mission scientists should be able to determine their sizes with observations New Horizons will make during the flyby and will transmit to Earth at a later date.
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