The space agency has released the first set of images that the New Horizons probe took as it flew past Pluto.
Never before had a spacecraft flown past Pluto, and New Horizons certainly did not disappoint. As well as reams of scientific data, the probe sent back a batch of photographs of the surface of the dwarf planet.
New images of dwarf planet and its moons
The fascinating images show icy mountains on the surface of Pluto, and new details of its moons Hydra and Charon. Scientists have waited patiently for the images since New Horizons left Earth almost 10 years ago.
“The New Horizons is bringing what was previously a blurred point of light into focus,” said NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown. “Yesterday, America’s space program took another historic leap for humankind.”
“We now have an isolated small planet that is showing activity after 4.5 billion years,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator. “It’s going to send a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing board.”
“I would never have believed that the first close-up image of Pluto [we received] didn’t have a single impact crater on it,” said co-investigator John Spencer.
Detailed photos surprise mission scientists
New Horizons captured the images around 90 minutes before its closest approach to Pluto. Scientists noticed a “heart” shape on the surface of the dwarf planet, which will be named Tomaugh Regio in honor of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto.
Photos of Hydra and Charon were also released today, and another set of photos will be published later this week. Charon is Pluto’s largest moon, and the first high-resolution images of its surface reveal that a series of cliffs run for hundreds of miles across its surface, as well as canyons which can measure as much as 6 miles deep.
Cathy Olkin, co-investigator, told the press that the new images of Charon “blew our socks off.”
“There is so much interesting science in this one image alone . . . we’ve been saying Pluto did not disappoint; Charon did not disappoint either,” she continued.
Data leaves scientists with more questions than answers
In addition to the photos, scientists are thrilled at the huge amounts of data that New Horizons will beam back to Earth over the next 16 months, which will help to improve our understanding of Pluto. The dwarf planet was previously considered to be part of our solar system, but lost its title in 2006 when the International Astronomical Union decided that it did not fit the official definition of a planet.
As is often the case, new data throws previously-held theories into doubt, and Pluto is no different. Data collected by New Horizons has led scientists to question their previous beliefs on planetary activity. “There’s something very different about Plutonian geology,” said researcher John Spencer.
The mission has been an unqualified success, and scientists are ecstatic. NASA scientist Cathy Olkin claims that the data “exceeds what we came for.” New Horizons is now located over a million miles past Pluto, and will continue its journey into the Kuiper Belt, beaming data back to Earth as it goes.
Pluto is the first body in the Kuiper Belt that has been visited by a probe sent from Earth, and New Horizons will collect data on other bodies which are thought to “hold frozen clues as to how the solar system formed.”
NASA plans to make another briefing on Friday, so expect more Pluto-mania.