New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet above the surface of the icy body.
The mountains likely formed no more than 100 million years ago — mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system — and may still be in the process of building, says Jeff Moore of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI). That suggests the close-up region, which covers less than one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.
Moore and his colleagues base the youthful age estimate on the lack of craters in this scene. Like the rest of Pluto, this region would presumably have been pummeled by space debris for billions of years and would have once been heavily cratered — unless recent activity had given the region a facelift, erasing those pockmarks.
This movie zooms into the base of the heart-shaped feature on Pluto to highlight a new image captured by NASA’s New Horizons. The new image, seen in black and white against a previously released color image of Pluto, shows a mountain range with peaks jutting as high as high as 11,000 feet above the surface of the icy body. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” says Moore.
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.
“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” says GGI deputy team leader John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.
The mountains are probably composed of Pluto’s water-ice “bedrock.”
Further reading: What happened to our fascination with space?
Although methane and nitrogen ice covers much of the surface of Pluto, these materials are not strong enough to build the mountains. Instead, a stiffer material, most likely water-ice, created the peaks. “At Pluto’s temperatures, water-ice behaves more like rock,” says deputy GGI lead Bill McKinnon of Washington University, St. Louis.
The close-up image was taken about 1.5 hours before New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto, when the craft was 478,000 miles from the surface of the planet. The image easily resolves structures smaller than a mile across.
Read more: Pluto Is Finally Ready for Its Close-Up
New Horizons was developed in NASA’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center. The Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility can double as a payload processing facility and a hazardous processing facility. It is environmentally controlled by a Class 5,000 air at filter discharge. The temperature remains at 70 F, plus or minus 5 F. An emergency exhaust system is provided for diluting and removing hazardous fuel and oxidizer vapors.
Release Date: July 15, 2015