And Christopher Pilny
UPDATE: 2:35PM CST
Some of the first images from New Horizons flyby are finally posted.
Taken 1.5 hours before its closest approach to the dwarf planet, the first (the above featured image) shows icy mountains rising from a region near Pluto’s equator, reaching more than 11,000 feet in height. What’s fascinating about these features is how young they are: no more than 100 million years old, which is basically fetal when compared to the age of the solar system (4.56 billion years). In fact, the region may still be geologically active.
“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) in a statement.
Moore and his team base this estimate on the lack of craters in the image–which amounts to less than one percent of Pluto’s surface area. Were the mountains older, say in the billions of years, there would be a good chance they’d been struck by space debris, leaving behind the tell-tale pockmarks of impact.
The mountains, most likely composed of water-ice “bedrock”, may also make scientists rethink geological activity on icy worlds, as their formation is now somewhat of a mystery. Pluto lacks the heat generated from gravitational interaction with a larger planet–like some icy moons–the answer to how they formed needs to be explored.
But wait, there’s more! The newer, sexier Charon
Like Pluto, Charon’s surface surprised researchers by how young it appeared–due in large part to, again, the lack of craters. (This is beginning to sound like a Cover Girl ad.)
Taken on July 13th from a distance of 289,000 miles, the newest photo shows a “swath of cliffs and troughs”, which is evidence of “widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust” caused by “internal processes”, said NASA.
It was the transmission the world had been waiting for – NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft “phoned home” shortly before 9 PM Eastern time on Tuesday, letting mission team scientists know that it had, in fact, successfully completed its historic flyby of Pluto.
The probe sent a preprogrammed 15-minute transmission comprised of status messages to the mission operations team at Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory via the NASA Deep Space Network, the US space agency said in a press release.
The broadcast ended what NASA called “a very suspenseful 21-hour waiting period” following New Horizons’ closest pass to Pluto at 7:49 AM Eastern on Tuesday. At that time, the spacecraft was just 7,750 miles from the surface of the dwarf planet. Officials had instructed the probe not to communicate with Earth until it had travelled beyond the Pluto system.
During that time, New Horizons used its instruments to collect as much data about Pluto and its moons as possible. As it now travels deeper into the Kuiper Belt to study frozen objects believed to provide clues about the formation of the solar system, the craft will also start sending the data it collected back to Earth – a process that will take 16 months to complete. (Woah baby!)
NASA officials reflect on the historic moment
“I know today we’ve inspired a whole new generation of explorers with this great success, and we look forward to the discoveries yet to come,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement Tuesday evening. “This is a historic win for science and for exploration. We’ve truly, once again raised the bar of human potential.”
“With the successful flyby of Pluto we are celebrating the capstone event in a golden age of planetary exploration,” added John Grunsfeld, associate administrator at the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “While this historic event is still unfolding – with the most exciting Pluto science still ahead of us – a new era of solar system exploration is just beginning,” with missions to Mars, Jupiter, Europa, and other worlds coming in the years ahead.
New Horizons was the first space mission ever to explore a world located as far away from Earth as Pluto, and the dwarf planet is the first Kuiper Belt object ever visited by a terrestrial mission. The spacecraft also revealed that Pluto is nearly 1,500 miles in diameter, making it the largest object in the Kuiper Belt. Also, much like Mars, it’s red.
“Following in the footsteps of planetary exploration missions such as Mariner, Pioneer, and Voyager, New Horizons has triumphed at Pluto,” said principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern from the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. The flyby “completes the first era of planetary reconnaissance, a half century long endeavor that will forever be a legacy of our time.”
Feature Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI
Charon Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI