Here’s What We Learned About Pluto Today
Three days after New Horizons‘ flight through the Pluto system and the data is coming in fast and furious (albeit quite highly compressed!), giving scientists a virtual “toy box” of new findings to make about these distant worlds’ exotic nature. On Wednesday we got our first looks at Pluto’s 11,000-foot-high mountains, now informally named Norgay Montes (making them the first extraterrestrial features to be named after a Nepali) and on Thursday we saw the surface of Charon, where a mountain seems to have been sunk into a cavity of some sort. Today during another press conference from
Johns Hopkins University NASA HQ in Washington, DC more of Pluto’s surface was revealed, along with some preliminary findings about its surprisingly-extensive atmosphere. These are some of the highlights…
Pluto has strangely smooth frozen plains in its “heart”
Just northeast of the Norgay Montes, in the “heart of the heart” lie crater-free, smooth plains of frozen material – possibly carbon dioxide ice mixed with nitrogen and methane as well. Within this region informally named Sputnik Planum arge polygonal shapes are marked by long troughs, some of which contain deposits of darker material. What’s so interesting about this area is how young it must be to exhibit no craters – according to New Horizons geologist Jeff Moore, some of the surfaces could be “only a week old as far as we know!” How the region formed is still (like most of these new discoveries) a mystery. Read more here.
“There are active land-procreative processes operating into the current time.”
– Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team
Dark streaks on Sputnik Planum’s ice
Some of the rises in Sputnik Planum show dark spots with streaks appearing to extend outwards from them. While speculative of course, the causes of these streaks could be either falling hydrocarbons from higher in the atmosphere that have deposited and been swept along by prevailing winds, or more intriguingly staining from active plumes of darker material issuing from below the frozen surface (like what Voyager 2 observed on Neptune’s moon Triton.) Without having seen plumes in action in New Horizons data (yet) it’s hard to determine for sure which scenario is the case.
Pluto has a lot of atmosphere!
The New Horizons Atmospheres team saw data on Pluto’s atmosphere extending outward from the planet up to 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers), confirming that Pluto’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere is larger than it could ever be observed from Earth and relatively larger than our own atmosphere. It’s the first detection of Pluto’s atmosphere over 170 miles (270 km). What’s more, Pluto’s atmosphere shows little variation from limb to limb – while not completely “stagnant” it appears to be nearly identical on either side as observed when Pluto briefly passed in front of the Sun from the departing spacecraft’s point of view. Read more here.
Pluto has a tail!
Neil deGrasse Tyson once joked “I love Pluto – it’s my favorite comet.” (That was a joke, wasn’t it Neil?) And while Pluto doesn’t have a million-mile-long tail like some of the more gregarious comets that have passed though the inner Solar System, it does have a dense cloud of cold ionized gas streaming out to 68,000 miles (109,000 km) behind it, the result of its nitrogen atmosphere being steadily stripped away by the solar wind. “This is just a first tantalizing look at Pluto’s plasma environment,” said co-investigator Fran Bagenal who leads the New Horizons Particles and Plasma team. Read more here.
And as an added treat (really kind of an appetizer) we got to see the first resolved image of Nix, another of Pluto’s four smaller moons:
(Looks like it has a face doesn’t it? There’s that darn pareidolia for ya!)
The next news briefing on Pluto will take place on Friday, July 24 – looking forward to seeing what the team can come up with when given a whole week to pore over the data! (And I’m sure they could all use a few good nights’ sleep too.)
Watch today’s full news briefing below (and don’t miss the part where they answer my question about the streaks at 46:50!)
Source: NASA. Image credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI