NASA's official New Horizons report on Pluto was published last week, and scientists have no idea what to make of the findings.
By now, you have surely seen that NASA’s first official report of the space probe New Horizons’ has been released, and it reveals a shocking number of new facts about the strange dwarf planet. According to a report from National Geographic, the most recent revelations about Pluto include vast, geologically infant planes and a dynamic, mysterious atmosphere.
In the early 2000s, NASA scientists had no idea what they would find when New Horizons was finally launched. It blasted past Pluto earlier this year at over 30,000 miles per hour, and took the closest photos of the dwarf planet ever seen on Earth.
New Horizons continues to blast through the Kuiper Belt, and has been sending photos of Pluto and its moons to scientists at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO since its flyby on July 14, 2015.
The images sent back by the space probe are stunning and revealing. They reveal a stunningly complex surface topography on the dwarf planet, including jagged mountain peaks topping out at 11,000 feet above the surface, made entirely of water, nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide ice.
Water makes up the majority of the mass on most of these ice mountains, but a dusting of the other gases coats the slopes. According to William McKinnon, a planetary scientist and researcher from Washington University, “Either they were never coated, or the lighter ices slide off.”
The frozen gases on Pluto’s surface aren’t uniformly distributed, however. A flat plane called Tombaugh Regio, shaped like the heart the size of Texas is coated in a thick layer of methane. A notable plain on the region called Sputnik Planum is virtually devoid of any impact craters, meaning that it is a relatively new geologic feature.
In addition to the mysteries presented by Pluto’s diverse geography, the atmosphere has proven to be quite the puzzle for researchers. The instruments on New Horizons calculated that Pluto’s atmosphere was half as pressurized as their initial estimates. There were thick layers of chemical haze floating above the surface of Pluto that made the sky appear blue as New Horizons snapped a photo looking back toward the sun.
We won’t get the full picture until all of the data arrives back from the wayward probe, but the information we have received thus far presents some serious mysteries about the distant dwarf planet.