NASA’s new Pluto, Charon photographs do not disappoint

The zoom-in of Pluto, showing an approximately 241-million kilometer swath of the dwarf planet, reveals a mountain range about 3,353 million meters high and tens of miles wide.

By: AP | Cape Canaveral/florida | Updated: July 16, 2015 2:57 pm
New Horizons, NASA, Pluto, New Horizons Pluto, New Horizons NASA, NASA Pluto mission, Dwarf planet, Pluto pictures, first pluto pictures, international news, news, science This Tuesday, July 14, 2015 image provided by NASA on Wednesday shows a region near Pluto’s equator with a range of mountains captured by the New Horizons spacecraft. (Source: AP)

Mankind’s first close-up look at Pluto did not disappoint on Wednesday. The pictures showed ice mountains on Pluto about as high as the Rockies and chasms on its big moon Charon that appear six times deeper than the Grand Canyon.

Especially astonishing to scientists was the total absence of impact craters in a zoom-in shot of one otherwise rugged slice of Pluto. That suggests that Pluto is not the dead ice ball many people think, but is instead geologically active even now, its surface sculpted not by collisions with cosmic debris but by its internal heat, the scientific team reported.

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Breathtaking in their clarity, the long-awaited images were unveiled in Laurel, Maryland, home to mission operations for NASA’s New Horizons, the unmanned spacecraft that paid a history-making flyby visit to the dwarf planet on Tuesday after a journey of 9 years and 3 billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers).

“I don’t think any one of us could have imagined that it was this good of a toy store,” principal scientist Alan Stern said at a news conference. He marveled: “I think the whole system is amazing. … The Pluto system IS something wonderful.”

As a tribute to Pluto’s discoverer, Stern and his team named the bright heart-shaped area on the surface of Pluto the Tombaugh Reggio. American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh spied the frozen, faraway world on the edge of the solar system in 1930.

Thanks to New Horizons, scientists now know Pluto is a bit bigger than thought, with a diameter of 1,473 miles (2,370 million kilometers), but still just two-thirds the size of Earth’s moon. And it is most certainly not frozen in time.

New Horizons, NASA, Pluto, New Horizons Pluto, New Horizons NASA, NASA Pluto mission, Dwarf planet, Pluto pictures, first pluto pictures, international news, news, science This Tuesday, July 14, 2015 image provided by NASA on Wednesday shows Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, made by the New Horizons spacecraft. (Source: AP)

The zoom-in of Pluto, showing an approximately 150-mile (241-million kilometer) swath of the dwarf planet, reveals a mountain range about 11,000 feet (3,353 million meters) high and tens of miles wide. Scientists said the peaks seemingly pushed up from Pluto’s subterranean bed of ice _ appeared to be a mere 100 million years old. Pluto itself is 4.5 billion years old.

“Who would have supposed that there were ice mountains?” project scientist Hal Weaver said. “It’s just blowing my mind.”

John Spencer, like Stern a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, called it “just astonishing” that the first close-up picture of Pluto didn’t have a single impact crater. Stern said the findings suggesting a geologically active interior are going to “send a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing boards.”

“It could be a game-changer” in how scientists look at other frozen worlds in the Kuiper Belt on the fringes of our solar system, Spencer said. Charon, too, has a surprisingly youthful look and could be undergoing geologic activity.

“We’ve tended to think of these midsize worlds … as probably candy-coated lumps of ice,” Spencer said. “This means they could be equally diverse and be equally amazing if we ever get a spacecraft out there to see them close up.”

The heat that appears to be shaping Pluto may be coming from the decay of radioactive material normally found in planetary bodies, the scientists said. Or it could be coming from energy released by the gradual freezing of an underground ocean.

As for Charon, which is about half the size of Pluto, its canyons look to be 3 miles to 6 miles deep and are part of a cluster of troughs and cliffs stretching 600 miles (965 million kilometers), or about twice the length of the Grand Canyon, scientists said.

The Charon photo was taken Monday. The Pluto picture was shot just 1{ hours before the spacecraft’s moment of closest approach. New Horizons swept to within 7,700 miles (12,391 million kilometers) of Pluto during its flyby. It is now 1 million miles (1.61 million kilometers) beyond it.

Up until this week, the best pictures of Pluto were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and they were blurry, pixelated images.

Scientists promised even better pictures for the next news briefing on Friday. Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory is in charge of the $720 million mission.

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  1. M
    Marcos
    Jul 16, 2015 at 12:51 pm
    For God's shake, 1 mile = 1.6 Kilometre and 1 feet = 0.33 meter. There are no such millions meter high mountains and Pluto can't be millions of kilometres wide..! What kind of farmer is writing this article??
    Reply
  2. A
    Abhinav
    Jul 16, 2015 at 7:50 am
    Which media report is true? Somewhere in one of the media reports it was reported that it takes 6 months for message to travel from pluto to earth. Surprisingly the current media reports are showing photographs just received recently. Question is, was these photographs sent 6 months back from the space craft that it reached here now ? Then when did the space craft reach pluto ? Puzzling isn't it.
    Reply
  3. A
    Abhinav
    Jul 16, 2015 at 8:52 am
    Which report is true? Somewhere in one of the media reports, it was reported that it take 6 months for messages to travel the distance from pluto to earth. The photographs being shown in this article and elsewhere shows recent date of receipt i.e. 14th July 2015 etc. Question is when was the message sent from pluto and when did the space craft reach pluto ? Puzzling isn't it ?
    Reply
    1. V
      Vedic Rashtra
      Jul 16, 2015 at 9:08 am
      QED, IE editorial team is scientifically challenged.
      Reply
      1. C
        converter
        Jul 16, 2015 at 7:11 am
        please correct the feet to km conversion 11000 feet = 3352.8 meters not 3352.8 million meters
        Reply
        1. S
          Samir T
          Jul 16, 2015 at 12:43 pm
          Since when did 1,473 miles become 2,370 million kilometers ? Does the reporter even have an idea about magnitude, distance measures, length, metric system and common sense ??
          Reply
          1. J
            j
            Jul 16, 2015 at 1:14 pm
            Your conversions are incorrect. 600 miles is not 965 million kms! Check your measurements please.
            Reply
            1. J
              John
              Jul 16, 2015 at 7:18 am
              Imperial to metric conversion needs some work!
              Reply
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