From mountains to moons, NASA’s New Horizons Pluto Mission has made multiple discoveries during its 'flyby' past the dwarf planet.
On Wednesday, one day after a spacecraft's first ever Pluto flyby, New Horizons team revealed a set of five photos taken by the spacecraft.
The following text and images are reproduced from NASA.GOVPluto mountains
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. Credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI
Mankind's first close-up look at Pluto did not disappoint. The pictures showed ice mountains on Pluto about as high as the Rockies and chasms on its big moon Charon that appear six times deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Especially astonishing to scientists was the total absence of impact craters in a zoom-in shot of one otherwise rugged slice of Pluto. That suggests that Pluto is not the dead ice ball many people think, but is instead geologically active even now, its surface sculpted not by collisions with cosmic debris but by its internal heat, the scientific team reported.
Breathtaking in their clarity, the long-awaited images were unveiled in Laurel, Maryland, home to mission operations for NASA's New Horizons, the unmanned spacecraft that paid a history-making flyby visit to the dwarf planet on Tuesday after a journey of 9½ years and 3 billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers).
"I don't think any one of us could have imagined that it was this good of a toy store," principal scientist Alan Stern said at a news conference. He marveled: "I think the whole system is amazing. ... The Pluto system IS something wonderful."
As a tribute to Pluto's discoverer, Stern and his team named the bright heart-shaped area on the surface of Pluto the Tombaugh Reggio. American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh spied the frozen, faraway world on the edge of the solar system in 1930.
Thanks to New Horizons, scientists now know Pluto is a bit bigger than thought, with a diameter of 1,473 miles (2,370 million kilometers), but still just two-thirds the size of Earth's moon. And it is most certainly not frozen in time.
The zoom-in of Pluto, showing an approximately 150-mile (241-million kilometer) swath of the dwarf planet, reveals a mountain range about 11,000 feet (3,353 million meters) high and tens of miles wide. Scientists said the peaks - seemingly pushed up from Pluto's subterranean bed of ice - appeared to be a mere 100 million years old. Pluto itself is 4.5 billion years old.Charon surprise
Charon. Credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI
Another surprise was Pluto's primary moon, Charon, which was believed to be geologically dead. Instead, New Horizons found troughs, cliffs and giant canyons - all evidence of internal processes. "Charon just blew our socks off," said New Horizons scientist Cathy Olkin.
So far only a fraction of the thousands of pictures and science measurements collected by New Horizons during its traverse through the Pluto system have been relayed. The data will be transmitted back to Earth over the next 16 months. "I don't think any one of us could have imagined that it was this good of a toy store," said New Horizons' lead scientist Alan Stern.
Charon, which is about half the size of Pluto, has canyons which look to be 3 miles to 6 miles deep and are part of a cluster of troughs and cliffs stretching 600 miles (965 million kilometers), or about twice the length of the Grand Canyon, scientists said.
The Charon photo was taken Monday. The Pluto picture was shot just 1½ hours before the spacecraft's moment of closest approach. New Horizons swept to within 7,700 miles (12,391 million kilometers) of Pluto during its flyby. It is now 1 million miles (1.61 million kilometers) beyond it.Hydra emerges
Hydra.Credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI
A new sneak-peak image of Hydra is the first to reveal its apparent irregular shape and its size, estimated to be about 43-33 km.
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.Pluto's heart beat
Pluto. Credits: NASA/APL/SwRI
Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 13, 2015 when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The color image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument that was acquired earlier on July 13. This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the "heart," which measures approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) are complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless—possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes.
Pluto through the years
Yesterday, America's space program took another historic leap for humankind. Today, the New Horizons team is bringing what was previously a blurred point of light into focus. We’ve got even more data from the #Plutoflyby coming over the next 16 months. Keep following along…Posted by NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Wednesday, July 15, 2015
This animation combines various observations of Pluto over the course of several decades. The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (image courtesy Lowell Observatory Archives). The other images show various views of Pluto as seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope beginning in the 1990s and NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The final sequence zooms in to a close-up frame of Pluto released on July 15, 2015.
Text and image copyright belongs to NASA.
(With AP and Reuters inputs)