Just 24 hours after receiving confirmation that the New Horizons spacecraft survived its encounter with the Pluto system, NASA released the first close-up view of Pluto’s surface.
The high-resolution image is just one segment of a larger mosaic of the lower left portion of Pluto’s “heart.” The region – now officially dubbed Tombaugh Regio after the man who discovered the icy world – features a mountain range similar to the Rocky Mountains with peaks towering as high as 3,500 meters (11,000 feet) above the surface and composed of water ice.
The mountains are young and thought to have formed no more than 100 million years ago – which makes them very young when compared to the age of the Solar System. Mountains on an isolated small body in the far reaches of the Solar System was a surprise, and it’s still too early to determine how they formed.
What the team does know is that they are not the product of tidal heating. Pluto is tidally locked with its largest moon, Charon, and as such there is not a big heat exchange system between the two bodies. Based on this, scientists predict that Pluto may have active geologic processes going on. These types of processes could include geyers and or cryovolcanoes. Although neither of these processes have been observed yet, the team will be keeping an eye out for them.
“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 (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
During the flyby, New Horizons also observed Pluto’s smaller moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos. So far, we only have a sneak peek of Hydra (pictured below). The newly published image confirms that Hydra is an irregular-shaped world, and it's estimated to span approximately 43 by 33 kilometers (27 by 21 miles). Its surface reflects about 45% of the light that hits it, indicating the surface is most likely covered in water ice. Future images along with spectroscopic data from the Ralph instrument are expected to reveal more details about Hydra and the other small satellites.
Pluto's moon Hydra. Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI
In addition to the magnificent view of Pluto, NASA also released a stunning image of Charon (shown below). Taken from a distance of 466,000 kilometers (290,000 miles), the image reveals a younger surface than previously predicted, which indicates Charon is also geologically active. We see evidence of a dark crater – the team refers to as Mordor – cliffs and troughs, as well as a canyon 7 to 9 kilometers (4 to 6 miles) deep. To put that in perspective, the Grand Canyon in the United States is approximately 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) deep. What scientists did not see was the presence of craters, further indication that the moon is active.
Pluto’s largest moon Charon. Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI
John Grusnfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate, said in a press conference: "Pluto New Horizons is a true mission of exploration showing us why basic scientific research is so important.”
So far, we’ve seen a small sample of the treasure trove of data to come. We have 16 months of data return to look forward to.