It is nearly a full year since the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto thereby opening up the former planet to detailed scrutiny for the very first time; and, boy, was it ready for its closeup. Given the huge distances involved we always knew it would take over a year for all the data to be beamed back to earth but in the initial weeks and months NASA made sure that there was a weekly update to wow us. Every Sunday I would read the press release so that Monday’s post had the latest info on the distant ice world, it basically became a regular feature of the blog.
Today, Pluto makes a very welcome return to these pages with another stunning image. It is *well* worth expanding this image or clicking here for the full size NASA original.
What we’re looking at here is a hi-res close up of the area informally named Sputnik Planum where it joins a mountainous area known as Krun Macula. It is a composite of many images taken as the craft began its closest approach. For a sense of scale, each of those tiny dots in the bulk of the picture are craters 5-8 miles across.
Actually I shouldn’t call them craters, that’s not what they are. Craters are caused by impacts and tend to have high rims which these features don’t have. Think of them more as pits where the surface has simply collapsed due to processes that we don’t yet understand. In some areas the pits have joined together to form vast valleys dozens of miles long and deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Pluto has truly proven to be the gift that keeps on giving. No one was expecting such a range of geographical features, evidence of recent geological activity, the red colour caused by tholins produced in the high atmosphere and the tantalising prospect of cryovolcanoes.
There are still several months of downloads still to come from New Horizons and so this story is far from over. Indeed, the craft is still performing science now. It recently took multiple images of a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) that allowed NASA to pin down the position and orbit of this object that had been a possible candidate as a 6th moon of Pluto. New Horizons confirmed that it is not. This was considered a dry run and proof of concept for a potential extension to the mission that would see New Horizons fly by several other KBOs in the coming years, if NASA grants the extension that is. Let’s hope they do.