Out of this world
NASA scientists in awe at ‘mind-blowing’ Pluto landscape
MANKIND’S first close-up look at Pluto is thrilling NASA scientists, agog at images of ice alps as high as the Rocky Mountains and chasms on its big moon far deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Especially astonishing to the excited experts analysing the footage beamed back from the New Horizons craft is the absence of impact craters.
That suggests Pluto is not the dead ice ball many people think, but instead geologically active even now, its surface sculpted by its internal heat.
“I don’t think any one of us could have imagined that it was this good,” New Horizons principal scientist Alan Stern said. “The whole system is amazing ... the Pluto system is something wonderful.”
He added the findings suggesting a geologically active interior are going to “send a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing boards”.
As a tribute to Pluto’s discoverer, Dr Stern and his team named the bright heartshaped area on the surface of Pluto the Tombaugh Reggio.
American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh spied the frozen, faraway world on the edge of the solar system in 1930. Some of his ashes were taken on the spacecraft.
Scientists now know Pluto is bigger than thought, with a diameter of 2370 million km, though it is still just two-thirds the size of Earth’s moon.
A zoomed-in image of Pluto, showing a swath of the dwarf planet, reveals a mountain range about 3350m high and dozens of kilometres wide. Scientists said the peaks — seemingly pushed up from Pluto’s subterranean bed of ice — appeared to be a mere 100 million years old. Pluto itself is 4.5 billion years old.
“Who would have supposed that there were ice mountains?” project scientist Hal Weaver said. “It’s just blowing my mind.”
Fellow expert John Spencer called it “astonishing” that the first close-up picture didn’t show an impact crater.
As for its big moon, Charon, about half the size of Pluto, its canyons look to be 10km deep and part of a cluster of troughs and cliffs stretching nearly 1000km, twice the length of the Grand Canyon.