Wednesday, July 15, 2015

First Close-up Peek at Pluto's Surface

Here is the first detailed image of the surface of Pluto, released today, and it's already providing surprises. The yellow bar gives you a sense of scale; Pluto's diameter is 1473 miles (just measured by New Horizons), so we are seeing only a small part of it here.
The angular structures in the top half of the picture are mountains, the tallest being about 2 miles high. Most likely these mountains are made of frozen water -- it's so cold on Pluto that water becomes harder than rock. In fact, it is likely to be layers of "hard frozen water" that make up much of the surface of this distant world.
The biggest surprise is that the surface shows no craters, large or small. Craters are made on every world when chunks of rock or ice hit and carve out a circular depression. Since every world is regularly being hit by pieces of cosmic debris that fly through our solar system, any world without craters must have a way of erasing them pretty quickly after they form. Scientists are estimating that the absence of craters means that the surface of Pluto is being refreshed by some process, and can't be more than a hundred millions years old -- which is very YOUNG compared to the 4600 million year age of the solar system. What keeps the surface of this little world refreshed and erased is the first challenge Pluto has thrown in the face of the scientists eager to study it.

1 comment:

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