NASA has written up a summary of discoveries to date from its New Horizons mission to Pluto, four months after the craft sailed past the icy dwarf planet — including news of a young outcropping of mountains that rise up to 11,000 feet above the surface and that could still be active today. The mountains were likely formed no longer than 100 million years ago, which is almost nothing when you consider the age of our solar system (4.57 billion years). The rest of Pluto’s surface lacks much in the way of craters, indicating its relative youth, and consists largely of nitrogen glaciers that ebb and flow over time.
“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, in a statement.
Meanwhile, new views of Pluto’s largest moon Charon shows a near-craterless surface as well, with evidence of crust fracturing thanks to the cliffs that span 600 miles on the surface. The north pole has darker markings that could indicate some kind of mineral deposits.
Pluto ranges from 2.7 to 4.5 billion miles away from the Sun, and its oddly eccentric orbit takes it closer than Neptune every 250 years or so for about 20 years at a time. And unlike the eight planets, its orbit is also inclined relative to the ecliptic, by a rather dramatic 17 degrees. Pluto is known to have five moons, with Charon being the largest; the others are named Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. The latter in particular has a highly irregular shape (below), is probably covered in water ice, and measures just 27 by 20 miles.
It will be still more months before New Horizons sends back the rest of its data, as it travels further away from Pluto and further into the Kuiper Belt. It’s still amazing that Pluto, first discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh and now properly classified as a dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt, is full of so many surprises now that we finally got a close look at it for the first time.
“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, in the same statement. “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.”
Finally, NASA has unveiled what appears to be a psychedelic view of the planet (above). But before you fire up the air-cooled VW bus and throw on your best tie dye shirt, there’s actually a scientific purpose for this: The false-color image shows just how active and varied the surface is, with the different colors magnifying what would otherwise be slight differences in shading.
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