Four months after New Horizons flew past Pluto, the research team has finally released the first official report outlining their findings.
You’ve probably been seeing pictures of Pluto like never before popping up on the news since the NASA space probe New Horizons flew past the dwarf planet this July. According to a report from Popular Mechanics, the New Horizons team has just published their first collection of findings in the journal Science.
The New Horizons mission is still sifting through the massive amounts of data collected by the probe earlier this year. New Horizons snapped thousands of photos of the dwarf planet as it flew by on July 14, and it continues to transmit these images home as it plows through the Kuiper belt.
According to Alan Stern, the head 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.”
None of the researchers involved with the New Horizons mission believed that Pluto and its moon Charon could ever be geologically active. According to Stern, to the best of researchers’ understanding, a dwarf planet like Pluto should not be active on the inside after a 4.5 billion year cooling period.
The discovery that the insides of Pluto are fluid and are affecting the surface topography has rewritten much of what scientists know about the bizarre planet. The findings of the New Horizons space probe have caused geophysicists to take a serious look at the available data and try to come up with an explanation for what was observed this summer.
One of the most famous images snapped by New Horizons is the heart-shaped geological feature on the surface of Pluto. The feature consists of a smooth lobe on the left side of the heart, named Sputnik Planum by scientists.
SP is roughly the size of Texas, and lacks evidence of a single crater. If the plain had been present for Pluto’s entire life, one would expect its surface to look more like the moon – riddled with impact craters. In the absence of craters, the only explanation is that the plane must have been recently made.
NASA researchers have also discovered evidence of tectonics, flowing glaciers, and ice runs that twist and wind around obstacles on the planet’s surface.
New Horizon’s didn’t only present mysteries on the dwarf planet Pluto. Two of Pluto’s smaller satellite bodies, Nix and Hydra, appeared to be extremely shiny. Pluto’s atmosphere also puzzled scientists with its composition 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 catch a glimpse even though it wasn’t facing the sun.
Once thought to be a distant ball of rock and ice, New Horizons has revealed that Pluto is a world full of mysteries. From its geological activity to its strange atmosphere, Pluto is much more dynamic than anybody ever knew.