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