Scientists and the public are getting their first look at what NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft saw as it whirled past Pluto Tuesday morning. Indications put Pluto at 2,370 kilometers (1,473 miles) in diameter; bigger than previous estimations. There will be hundreds more images of the dwarf planet and its largest moon to view.
“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.
Some of the information scientists are interested in is what the planet’s rock and icy material is made of as well as the makeup of Pluto’s thin atmosphere.
New Horizons is collecting so much data it will take 16 months to send it all back to Earth.
Indeed, even the single tiny corner of Pluto revealed Wednesday shows a surprisingly complex geography full of mountains and valleys.
However, scientists are stunned by the obvious lack of craters on Charon.
The new close-up shows the mountain range near Pluto’s heart, with peaks that reach 11,000 feet.
And just to see how far we have come, check out this gif from NASA about how our perspective of Pluto has changed through the decades until the present day. They don’t line up like impact crater rims. But already scientists are rethinking theories about how Pluto and its moons may have formed and what drives the geology today of this odd system.
NASA has released a closeup image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon, the latest picture from the New Horizons spacecraft’s historic flyby of the dwarf planet this week.
Chief scientist Alan Stern said the new images showed evidence of geological activity and mountains in the Pluto system. But those moons are heated by the tidal pull of the massive planets that they orbit, generating enough energy to power volcanoes and other forces capable of reshaping surface features.
“Charon blew our socks off. It is a small world with canyons, cliffs and dark areas that are still mysterious to us”, deputy mission manager Cathy Olkin said. Some of Tombaugh’s ashes are aboard New Horizons.
[NASA’s spacecraft made it to Pluto.
Pluto (left) and its moon, Charon, (right) in false color. Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory is in charge of the $720 million mission.