At the culmination of its nine-year journey through space, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft hurtled right through the Pluto system. Now that the little spacecraft is flying toward its next target – going even further away towards the outer region of our solar system – NASA scientists are excitedly downloading and processing the data gathered.
The first official report of the findings has been published in the Science magazine, and Hal Weaver, a project scientist in the New Horizons team, explained just how surprising the data is. The first detailed view of Pluto is still particularly remarkable, even though many of the matters reported in the paper already sound familiar.
That is due to the fact that the team has shared its new photos rather generously as they were downloaded. But the paper also reports unexpectedly diverse terrain on Pluto, in addition to new landforms discovered on its largest moon, Charon.
Scientists were expecting to see cratered, collision-scarred surfaces on both Pluto and Charon, the kind of characteristics usually present on planets that had changed little since their formation. Instead, data shows both worlds have incredible dynamic geologies, pointing to almost impossibly young ages.
It is yet to be determined what’s causing Pluto’s surface to suffer such radical changes. Scientists suspect that tectonic activity is responsible for the diversity on these cold celestial bodies, the driver behind the incredibly diversified regions of craters and giant, icy mountains.
Sputnik Planum – a smooth frozen lake of nitrogen – is just one of the wonders found on the dwarf planet, joining the wide array of glaciers made of exotic ices. The New Horizons scientists suspect that at least some of the glaciers are made of water ice floating in pools of nitrogen. It’s possible that nitrogen is for Pluto what groundwater is for Earth.
For now, scientists are still reeling in from the surprise of seeing such diversity in a system previously thought to be dead and barren. Next step is trying to put together the puzzle’s pieces and present an accurate assessment of that landscape, the “first real display of that to the world.”
But scientists have much more to find out, as months’ worth of data is yet to be processed and analyzed. New data is still popping in, and details are about to get even more exciting; scientists have also discovered that Pluto’s haze is a brilliant blue. The little planet has got much more to surprise us with.
Image Source: Scientific American