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Pluto and Charon close-ups 'mind blowing' as the science begins

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Jul 16, 2015, 5:00 UTC

Sen—First detailed images have been released from NASA's New Horizons probe, after it made its closest flyby of Pluto yesterday in an historic encounter.

The data returned so far includes high resolution images of the dwarf planet, a section of which is shown as the main image above, and a stunning new image of Pluto's moon Charon.

“New Horizons is returning amazing results already. The data look absolutely gorgeous, and Pluto and Charon are just mind blowing," said Alan Stern, the mission's Principal Investigator, in a statement.

The probe began sending back data from its flyby early on Wednesday, confirming that it had passed through the Plutonian system unscathed. The spacecraft had deliberately been programmed to remain silent during the flyby in order to devote all its resources to gathering data as it sped through the system at 50,000 km per hour.

The image of Pluto shows mountain peaks as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters). Initial analysis is that the mountains may have been formed less than 100 million years ago, suggesting Pluto may still be geologically active.

“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 California, in a statement.  

The notion that Pluto could be geologically active is unexpected because it is not involved in a gravitational tug of war with a giant planet, as is the case, for example, with Jupiter's moon Io. Geologists will now study the data and seek to find out what process could have generated the mountainous landscape and other surface features.

“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” said John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute, in a press statement.

As well as releasing the stunning new images, it was announced at the press conference that Pluto's heart-shaped area has been informally named Tombaugh Regio in honour of Clyde Tombaugh who discovered the planet in 1930.

An image of Pluto's largest moon Charon, shown below, shows very few impact craters, suggesting the moon has a relatively young surface and might be geologically active. Troughs and cliffs can be seen across the lower third of the moon, suggesting a fractured crust, likely the result of an internal process. 

On the upper right of the image is a huge scar, estimated to be a canyon about seven to nine kilometers deep. Analysis of the new images and what they tell us about Charon's past and present will take time. Cathy Olkin of Southwest Research Institute, told the NASA press conference: "Charon just blew our socks off when we saw the new image."


Pluto's largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera on July 13 from a distance of 289,000 miles (466,000 kilometers). Image credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI/NASA TV

A complete high resolution image of Pluto will be released in the coming days as more and more data is returned home by the probe. Mission operators estimate it will take 16 months to send back all the data gathered from the flyby.

New Horizons is the first spacecraft to fly past Pluto. The probe is now continuing on its journey deeper into the Kuiper Belt.The mission team hope to be able to visit another Kuiper Belt Object, and several potential targets have been identified from observations made using the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Maryland operates the New Horizons spacecraft for NASA. The mission's Principal Investigator Alan Stern is based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.