Five new articles on Pluto were published on Thursday in the journal Science, offering surprising new insights from the close-up flyby of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft last August.
Because Pluto is so far away — 4.67 billion miles, or 30 times the distance from the Earth to the sun – there has been a scarcity of information and photographs. Much scientific conjecture on the dwarf planet’s topography had been based on photographs taken from the distant Hubble Space Telescope, so this flyby produced a rare treasure trove of more accurate observations.
Many features of Pluto and its moons were unexpected. There is ice on Pluto — that was anticipated — but there’s more than just frozen water. The left half is covered by mostly nitrogen snow, while the right side is more methane ice; carbon monoxide also freezes solid there.
There might even be an “ice volcano” on Pluto. The New York Times reports:
[Scientists] are studying a mountain named Wright Mons that rises two miles, spans 90 miles across and has a hole at the center. “It’s not like any feature we’ve seen anywhere else in the solar system,” said John R. Spencer, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.
And Charon, one of Pluto’s moons, has a massive gash 600 miles long (longer than the Grand Canyon), with the canyon rising 7 miles above the base (much higher than Mt. Everest). The moons also have unusual axes and orbits.
Humanity is just beginning to scratch the surface of deep space exploration, and many of our assumptions are being overturned. It’s a very exciting time. For more on this fascinating topic see the video of last year’s Blouin Creative Leadership Summit panel Beyond Earth: Insights into Astrophysics.