On July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft finally made it to Pluto after a journey of 9.5 years and over 3 billion miles. The photos and data sent back have stunned and amazed scientists; and in most the recent issue of the journal “Science,” several scientists are now writing about their findings as well as their interpretations of the data.
Planetary scientist Alan Stern, who headed up the New Horizons mission, stated, “Almost everything we see on Pluto and in its atmosphere is puzzling.”
The planet has been a mystery since it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh back in 1930. The New Horizons shot past the planet at over 30,000 miles per hour while gathering data and taking photographs with the incredible array of scientific technology and equipment on board. Perhaps the most amazing discovery is that, on Pluto, methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen freeze to a solid ice state. Early analysis sees that the right side of the planet is covered in methane ice while the left side is composed of mostly snow made up of pure nitrogen.
Randy Gladstone, a planetary scientist based in Colorado at the Southwest Research Institute marveled that, “There really wasn’t much that turned out the way we thought it would.”
Among the discoveries has been a pot marked and crater encrusted landscape on Pluto that scientists estimate to be 4 billion years old. They have also observed massive glaciers that are highly active as well as giant ice mountains that are nearly 3 miles high. Another confusing aspect for scientists is a huge swath of the terrain that seems to be wavy lines similar to deep troughs running along much of the surface.
The surface temperature on the ninth planet is a staggering 400 degrees below zero. Looking at the planet’s largest moon, Charon, scientists note that there may be volcanoes present much as they are on Earth. They were also extremely surprised at how reflective the surfaces of Pluto’s 4 smaller moons are.
As scientists continue to examine the data, it seems that everyone is in for surprise after surprise as little in the data suggests any sort of validation for pre-conceived notions prior to the New Horizons fly by.
Gladstone concluded that, “It’s always fun to have your models validated, but it is way more fun to have them trashed. Finding out you were completely wrong is a great part of science.”
Image Credits: 1) by NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Gladstone et al./Science (2016), 2) and 3) by NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI