Stunning new photo of Pluto reveals 11,000 foot ice mountains

  • This NASA photo of Pluto was made from four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) combined with color data from the Ralph instrument in this enhanced color global view released on Jul. 24, 2015. The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers). 
  • Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on Jul. 15, 2015.
  • A newly discovered mountain range lying near the southwestern margin of Pluto’s Tombaugh Region (Tombaugh Region), situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain is shown in this image acquired by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on Jul. 14, 2015 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) and sent back to Earth on Jul. 20, 2015. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. 
  • While Pluto’s largest moon Charon has grabbed most of the lunar spotlight, two of Pluto’s smaller and lesser-known satellites are coming into focus via new images from the New Horizons spacecraft.
  • New details of Pluto’s largest moon Charon are revealed in this image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), taken late on Jul. 13, 2015 from a distance of 289,000 miles  (466,000 kilometers) in a picture released by NASA on Jul. 15, 2015.
  • A portrait from the final approach. Pluto and Charon display striking color and brightness contrast in this composite image from Jul. 11, 2013 showing high-resolution black-and-white LORRI images.
  • A new close-up image of a region near Pluto’s equator reveals a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. A U.S. spacecraft sailed past the tiny planet Pluto in the distant reaches of the solar system on Tuesday, capping a journey of 3 billion miles (4.88 billion km) that began nine and a half years ago. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passed by the ice-and-rock planetoid and its entourage of five moons at 7:49 a.m. EDT (1149 GMT). The event culminated an initiative to survey the solar system that the space agency embarked upon more than 50 years ago. 
  • This image provided by NASA on Wednesday Jul. 15, 2015 shows one of Pluto’s five moons, Hydra, about 27 miles (43 kilometers) by 20 miles (33 kilometers) wide, made by the New Horizons spacecraft. 
  • In this handout provided by NASA, Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, taken on Jul. 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. New Horizons spacecraft is nearing its July 14 fly-by when it will close to a distance of about 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers). The 1,050-pound piano sized probe, which was launched January 19, 2006 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is traveling 30,800 mph as it approaches. (Photo by NASA/APL/SwRI via Getty Images)
  • Members of the New Horizons science team react to seeing the spacecraft’s last and sharpest image of Pluto before closest approach later in the day at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. on Tuesday, Jul. 14, 2015.  
  • Guests and New Horizons team members countdown to the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. on Tuesday, Jul. 14, 2015. 
  • Annette Tombaugh-Sitze, daughter of Clyde Tombaugh (the discoverer of Pluto), celebrates with others at a countdown to the New Horizons spacecraft’s closest proximity to Pluto at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., on Jul. 14 2015. 
  • NASA Principal Investigator for New Horizons mission Alan Stern (C) is joined by Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld (L) and Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman for a news conference as the spacecraft New Horizons approaches a flyby of Pluto, at NASA’s Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. on Jul. 14, 2015. 
  • Francis Murphy poses with a New Horizons probe hat at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. on Jul. 14, 2015.
  • Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. holds a bumper sticker given to her by members of the New Horizons team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. on Jul. 13, 2015. 
  • The New Horizons spacecraft lifts off aboard an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fl. on Jan. 19, 2006.



The latest photo from the New Horizons spacecraft shows the icy mountains of Pluto’s surface, in ten times greater detail than anything seen before. The image, released by NASA on Wednesday, includes a portion of an area scientists have named the Tombaugh Regio, after Clyde William Tombaugh, the American astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.

Scientists were surprised by a lack of craters, suggesting the mountains (likely composed largely of water ice, not rock) in the shot were formed no more than 100 million years ago — otherwise they’d show evidence of more impacts.

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore, of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team, in a NASA news release.

This particular region is at “the base of the heart,” said John Spencer, New Horizons team member from Southwest Research Institute, in reference to one of several patterns on the surface.

A Historic journey

New Horizons’ approach was the culmination of a 3-billion mile journey. Launched on January 19, 2006, the probe flew for nine years at over 52,000 miles per hour before performing a flyby inspection of Pluto, coming within 8,000 miles of the planet — just 1/30th of the distance from Earth to the Moon. After passing Pluto, New Horizons has continued on its way towards the edge of the solar system, contacting the team on Earth to assure them that it remains fully functional.

These pictures and readings of Pluto are the most detailed by far that scientists have ever had the opportunity to examine. This data will prove extremely valuable in understanding how our solar system and planets formed, they say, and the probe will continue sending new data home for at least a year.

With Pluto now millions of miles behind it, New Horizons is making its way further into the Kuiper Belt, a region full of small and mysterious objects never before closely examined.

More photos of the Pluto system

Pluto’s moon, Charon, is seen in better detail than ever before in this photo, released at the same time as the image of Pluto’s surface. The moon, like the dwarf planet with which it shares a complex orbital dance, is shown to be surprisingly young, as evidenced by a relative lack of craters on its surface. Along the top right edge can be seen a massive canyon that may be as much as 6 miles deep.

Another of Pluto’s moons, the irregularly shaped Hydra, was discovered in 2005 but has never been observed even at this pixelated level of detail. This photo, also released Wednesday, shows that Hydra is about 27 miles across at its widest, and covered in water ice. More and better pictures of this moon and others will be appearing as the New Horizons team continues to sort and analyze them.

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