Using New Horizons closest-approach images, NASA has created a simulated flyover of Pluto’s icy Norgay Montes (Norgay Mountains) and Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), which make up the dwarf planet’s equatorial Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region), named for Clyde Tombaugh, the American astronomer who discovered Pluto back in 1930.
After a decade-long, three-billion-mile journey, the images were acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015, during New Horizon’s closest approach at a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible.
“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.”
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Information captured in the closest-approach images has revealed that Pluto’s mountains are much younger than expected. In fact, they are some of the youngest-known surfaces in the Solar System.
“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 … 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,” NASA reported on July 15.
“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) deputy team leader, John Spencer, said.
“This terrain is not easy to explain,” Jeff Moore, the GGI project leader, added. “The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.”
And this is just a small sample of what’s to come. It will be well into next year — October 2016 — before New Horizons is able to send its entire cache of data back to Earth. The average downlink rate now that New Horizons has passed Pluto is approximately 2,000 bits per second — a rate the spacecraft achieves by downlinking with both of its transmitters through NASA’s largest antennas — but I suspect it will be worth the wait!
- Watch NASA’s simulated flyover
- View the New Horizons image gallery
- Follow the New Horizons mission on Twitter (hashtag #PlutoFlyby )
- For more information on the New Horizons mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons and http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/plutotoolkit.cfm