About three months after New Horizons made its historic flyby of Pluto, researchers led by Principal Investigator Alan Stern have published first scientific review of data collected during the flyby. Initial data shows that the dwarf planet has a thin but extremely complex atmosphere. In a study published in the journal Science, scientists shed light on the complexity and diversity of the dwarf planet.
Ancient impact craters found on Pluto
Alan Stern said Pluto surprised scientists in many ways. It shows that even small planets can remain active billions of years after their formation. He said other large worlds in the Kuiper belt such as Haumea, Eris, and Makemake could also have complex histories. New Horizons also detected ancient impact craters, geologically recent glaciers, and many other structures that reflect widespread resurfacing.
Though in many other icy worlds resurfacing could be a result of tidal forces, Alan Stern insists that these are “not a vital heat source” for Pluto. The undulating terrain and rugged mountains in and around a heart-shaped area on Pluto require “geological processes” to have disrupted and deformed the dwarf planet’s water ice-rich bedrock.
Water ice is a new element on Pluto
Scientists at NASA concluded that the distant planet’s radius is 1,187km. Researchers have been baffled by spectacular images that New Horizons has sent since its flyby. Astronomers mapped the composition of Pluto’s surface and confirmed that water ice is a “new element” of the dwarf planet’s complex surface composition.
Astronomers also studied Pluto’s color diversity. The red color on the surface is due to the presence of organic compounds called tholins that result from the energetic irradiation of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide mixtures. Two of Pluto’s five moons, Hydra and Nix, are also covered with water ice.
New Horizons continues to fly beyond Pluto, heading towards the Kuiper belt. The probe has collected so much data that it would take at least a year to return all the data to Earth.