CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Vast frozen plains exist next door to Pluto’s big, rugged mountains sculpted of ice, scientists said Friday, three days after humanity’s first-ever flyby of the dwarf planet.
The New Horizons spacecraft team revealed close-up photos of those plains, which they’re already unofficially calling Sputnik Planum after the world’s first man-made satellite.
“Have a look at the icy frozen plains of Pluto,” principal scientist Alan Stern said during a briefing at NASA headquarters. “Who would have expected this kind of complexity?”
Stern described the pictures coming down from 3 billion miles away as “beautiful eye candy.”
“I’m still having to remind myself to take deep breaths,” added Jeff Moore, head of the New Horizons geology team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. “I mean, the landscape is just astoundingly amazing.”
Spanning hundreds of miles, the plains are located in the prominent, bright, heart-shaped area of Pluto. Like the mountains unveiled Wednesday, the plains look to be a relatively young 100 million years old – at the most. Scientists speculate internal heating – perhaps from icy volcanoes or geysers – might still be shaping these crater-free regions.
Moore stressed that scientists have no hard evidence of erupting, geyser-like plumes on Pluto – yet.
Another possibility could be that the terrain, like frozen mud cracks on Earth, formed as a result of contraction of the surface.
As of Friday’s news conference, New Horizons was just over 2 million miles past Pluto and operating well. The spacecraft on Tuesday became the first visitor to the 4.5 billion-year-old Pluto, sweeping within 7,700 miles of its icy surface after a journey of 9 1/2 years.
It will take 16 months for New Horizons to transmit to Earth all the data collected during the close encounter.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.