Data from Pluto mission expected to keep arriving for 16 months

Posted Jul 21, 2015 by Nathan Salant
The universe itself may be billions of years old, but that doesn't mean all of its components were created at the same time.
CLOSEUP: The dwarf planet Pluto as photographed by the LORRI and Ralph instruments aboard the New Ho...
CLOSEUP: The dwarf planet Pluto as photographed by the LORRI and Ralph instruments aboard the New Horizons spacecraft on July 13.
NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI/Wikimedia Commons
That is one of the surprising conclusions of photographs taken 3.6 billion miles away by the earth probe New Horizons, which flew by the dwarf planet Pluto last week, according to Cable News Network (CNN).
New Horizons' visit to the distant orbiting object — formerly considered a planet but demoted to dwarf in 2006 — revealed that Pluto still appears to be seismically active with features that may be only 100 million years old.
“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif.
“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” deputy team leader John Spencer said at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.
Nearly 10 years after the New Horizons probe was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., the tiny spacecraft has excited earth scientists by providing the first-ever closeup glimpses of Pluto and its five moons — four of which were not even discovered until the Hubble Space Telescope spotted them in 2006.
“New Horizons is returning amazing results already," said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at SwRI.
"The data look absolutely gorgeous, and Pluto and Charon are just mind-blowing," he said.
Photos are expected to keep coming from the Pluto flyby for the next few weeks as the ship navigates through the Kuiper Belt.
"Pluto New Horizons is a true mission of exploration showing us why basic scientific research is so important," said John Grunsfeld of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.
"The mission has had nine years to build expectations about what we would see during closest approach to Pluto and Charon," Grunsfeld said.
"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."
On Pluto itself, a new image of an equatorial region near the base of Pluto’s bright heart-shaped feature shows a mountain range with peaks as high as 11,000 feet above the surface.
But because Pluto is too far away to be heated by other planetary bodies, scientists believe another process is generating the heat needed to create the mountains.
"This terrain is not easy to explain," said Jeff Moore, who heads NASA's New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team in charge of the New Horizons mission.
"The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations," Moore said.
Before the mission, investigator Cathy Olkin had always assumed Pluto's largest moon, Charon, would be ancient and covered with impact craters. But it is not.
"Charon just blew our socks off," Olkin said.
"It's a small world with deep canyons, troughs, cliffs ... dark regions that are still slightly mysterious to us," she said.
The successful flight to Pluto means NASA has now completed missions to all nine original planets in the solar system.
But New Horizons may not be ready for retirement yet.
The piano-sized craft is now flying through the Kuiper Belt and could be sent to explore other small objects orbiting at the far reaches of our solar system, NASA said.
New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise -- a range of youthfu...
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 (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.