Herald Sun

Out of this world

NASA sci­en­tists in awe at ‘mind-blow­ing’ Pluto land­scape

- AP

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.

 ??  ?? CHARON Pluto’s big­gest moon has a canyon (top right) 7-9km deep
CHARON Pluto’s big­gest moon has a canyon (top right) 7-9km deep
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