Scientists make huge discoveries on Pluto

Scientists make huge discoveries on Pluto

The observation of Kuiper Belt Object 1994 JR1 has the science world buzzing, but there's also been a lot of discoveries from Pluto lately.

As we reported recently, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been sending us back some fascinating images of distant Kuiper Belt Object 1994 JR1, but not many people realize it’s still churning out new discoveries of Pluto from its flyby last year on an almost weekly basis that could help us understand the creation of the solar system itself.

It’s been nearly a year since New Horizons blasted past Pluto and sent back incredible images and groundbreaking data, but because of its incredible distance from the Earth, data is still coming in at a trickle, and it’s leading to new discoveries about the planet on a regular basis.

For example, a new study published earlier this month in the Journal of Geophysical Research — Space Physics found that Pluto behaves less like a comet and more like a planet in the way it interacts with solar wind — a big deal considering the fact that just a few years ago Pluto was demoted from its former status as the ninth planet in our solar system.

And on May 18, scientists with NASA’s New Horizons team released a statement noting that the spacecraft had observed the first occulations of Pluto’s atmosphere by ultraviolet stars. It confirms a number of important findings about the atmosphere of Pluto, and it shows that the upper atmosphere of the planet is 25 percent colder than scientists had expected.

Just two days later, scientists have spotted an expanse of terrain on Pluto they are describing as “fretted” — or, the region has bright plains divided into polygon-shaped blocks separated by connected valleys that can be several miles wide. It’s something scientists haven’t seen anywhere else in the solar system except in a very specific place on Mars.

“New Horizons scientists haven’t seen this type of terrain anywhere else on Pluto; in fact, it’s rare terrain across the solar system – the only other well-known example of such being Noctis Labyrinthus on Mars,” a NASA statement reads. “The distinct interconnected valley network was likely formed by extensional fracturing of Pluto’s surface. The valleys separating the blocks may then have been widened by movement of nitrogen ice glaciers, or flowing liquids, or possibly by ice sublimation at the block margins.”

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