NASA's New Horizons team has released its first official report on the findings made during this year's historic flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto.
You have likely been seeing non-stop pictures of Pluto popping up on the news since the NASA space probe New Horizons photographed the dwarf planet this summer. According to a report from Popular Mechanics, the New Horizons team has just published their first report on the historic mission in the journal Science.
The New Horizons research team is still sorting through the massive amounts of information gathered by the spacecraft earlier this year. New Horizons captured thousands of images of the dwarf planet as it soared by on July 14, and it continues to send these photos home as it blasts through the Kuiper belt.
According to Alan Stern, the lead researcher of the New Horizons mission, Pluto and its biggest moon, Charon, are “two of the most complex bodies in our solar system, rivaling the Earth and Mars in terms of the crazy amount of diversity in their geological landforms. We have plenty of evidence of glacial floes and other tectonic features that clearly indicated these bodies have been geologically active on the inside, very recently.”
Researchers on the New Horizons team had a hard time believing that Pluto was geologically active. According to Stern, after a 4.5 billion year cooling period, scientists thought it was extremely unlikely that anything would be changing under the surface of Pluto.
The discovery that the core of Pluto is fluid and influencing the surface topography has called into question much of what scientists know about the dwarf planet. The findings of the New Horizons space probe have caused geophysicists to reexamine the available data and try to come up with an explanation for what they saw this summer.
One of the most famous photos captured by New Horizons depicts the heart-shaped formation on the surface of Pluto. The feature consists of a smooth lobe on the left side of the heart, and was named Sputnik Planum by team researchers.
Sputnik Planum is roughly the size of Texas, and is completely devoid of any impact crater. If the plain had been there on Pluto since it formed, scientists would expect its surface to look more like the moon – littered with impact scars. In the absence of craters, the only explanation is that the plane must have formed recently.
NASA scientist have also found evidence of tectonic activity, fluid glaciers, and ice floes that twist and bend around obstacles on the planet’s jagged, mountainous surface.
New Horizon’s didn’t just present mysteries about the dwarf planet Pluto. Two of its smaller satellite bodies, Nix and Hydra, were extremely shiny in photographs snapped by the probe. Pluto’s atmosphere also perplexed scientists with its chemical makeup of acetylene and ethylene, among other exotic molecules. The atmosphere on Pluto reflected enough light to the dwarf planet’s dark side for researchers to be able to photograph it, even though it wasn’t illuminated by the sun.
Researchers used to think Pluto was just a desolate, distant ball of rock and ice, but New Horizons has changed that. From its geological activity to its strange atmosphere, Pluto is much more dynamic than NASA researchers expected, and the things they have learned will change our understanding of how the solar system formed permanently.