The first close-up views of Pluto show mountains made of ice and a surprisingly young, crater-free surface, scientists with Nasa’s New Horizons mission said on Wednesday.
Tweets, Facebook posts, videos and memes about the latest information transmitted back to Earth by Nasa’s deep space probe have been quietly taking over the internet.
The images are the first to emerge from a probe after a pass within 12,550 kilometers of Pluto on Tuesday.
The image was captured when New Horizons was about 478,000 miles away from Pluto’s surface.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the story of Pluto and New Horizons would be told for years to come.
When I was my 7-year-old daughter’s age, I would have argued with you about the size of Pluto.
However, scientists are surprised by the apparent lack of craters on Charon.
Some 13 hours after the flyby, applause broke out in mission control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Center outside the USA capital Washington, as the spacecraft made its “phone-home” contact with Earth and all systems were reported to be intact.
“It could be a game-changer” in how scientists look at other frozen worlds in the Kuiper Belt on the fringes of our solar system, Spencer said.
At upper right, along the moon’s curving edge, is a canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles (7 to 9 kilometers) deep.
Pluto has been shown to have a surprising Mars-like reddish hue, with an enigmatic heart-shaped feature on its surface that has already become its calling card on the internet. The spacecraft launched in 2006, the same year that Pluto was downgraded to “dwarf planet” status due to the celestial body’s small size. In addition, NASA said one of Pluto’s smaller moons, Hydra, is likely covered with “water ice”. The surface appears to have mountain ranges that scientists say could be mainly composed of ice.
That suggests, the space agency noted, the region may still be geologically active today. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.
Professor Alan Stern said these discoveries will send “a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing boards”.
Charon, the largest of Pluto’s known moons, also shows signs of geological activity.
The New Horizons spacecraft is expected to soon deliver more images of the Pluto system, so keep an eye on this page for updates.
Follow the New Horizons mission on Twitter and use the hashtag #PlutoFlyby to join the conversation.