New Horizons

It has been a little more than 24 hours after researchers started receiving data and images from New Horizons.

Surface of Charon appears youthful without craters and includes a canyon about 4 to 6 miles deep.

Surface of Charon appears youthful without craters and includes a canyon about 4 to 6 miles deepHorizons spacecraft after its rendezvous with Pluto on Tuesday, July 14.

New images include icy mountains on Pluto and a new close up of the dwarf planet’s largest moon, Charon.

Researchers say that the mountain range has peaks as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the planet’s surface.

It is believed that the mountains were probably formed no more than 100 million years ago. That’s young when considering that our solar system was formed 4.56 billion years ago. This suggests that the region, which covers about one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active.

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics, and Imaging Team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Unlike the icy moons of giant planets like Saturn, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. So, some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.

“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” said John Spencer, deputy team leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics, and Imaging Team.

The new image of Charon shows a youthful and varied terrain. Scientists are surprised by the apparent lack of craters. A band of cliffs and troughs stretching about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) indicates widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust, probably caused by internal geological processes. The image also shows a canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles (7 to 9 kilometers) in deep. In the North Polar Region the dark surface markings have a diffuse boundary, suggesting a thin deposit or stain on the surface.

The New Horizons spacecraft also observed four of Pluto’s other moons -– Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos. A new image of Hydra shows its irregular shape and its size, estimated to be about 27 by 20 miles (43 by 33 kilometers).

The observations suggest that Hydra’s surface is probably coated with water ice. Spectroscopic data from New Horizons’ Ralph instruments show an abundance of methane ice, but there are differences among regions across the frozen surface of Pluto.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland designed, constructed and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA.


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