mercredi 15 juillet 2015

From Mountains to Moons: Multiple Discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons Pluto Mission

NASA - New Horizons Mission logo.

July 15, 2015

Image above: New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise -- a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. Image Credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI.

Icy mountains on Pluto and a new, crisp view of its largest moon, Charon, are among the several discoveries announced Wednesday by the NASA's New Horizons team, just one day after the spacecraft’s first ever Pluto flyby.

 Mountains on Pluto

"Pluto New Horizons is a true mission of exploration showing us why basic scientific research is so important," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "The mission has had nine years to build expectations about what we would see during closest approach to Pluto and Charon. Today, we get the first sampling of the scientific treasure collected during those critical moments, and I can tell you it dramatically surpasses those high expectations."

“Home run!” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “New Horizons is returning amazing results already. The data look absolutely gorgeous, and Pluto and Charon are just mind blowing."

A new close-up image of an equatorial region near the base of Pluto’s bright heart-shaped feature shows a mountain range with peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.

Artist's view of New Horizons passing over Pluto. Image Credit: NASA

The mountains on Pluto likely formed no more than 100 million years ago -- mere youngsters in a 4.56-billion-year-old solar system. This suggests the close-up region, which covers about one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. 

Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.

“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” says GGI deputy team leader John Spencer at SwRI.

The new view of Charon reveals a youthful and varied terrain. Scientists are surprised by the apparent lack of craters. A swath of cliffs and troughs stretching about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) suggests widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust, likely the result of internal geological processes. The image also shows a canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles (7 to 9 kilometers) deep. In Charon’s north polar region, the dark surface markings have a diffuse boundary, suggesting a thin deposit or stain on the surface.

Image above: Charon’s Surprising, Youthful and Varied Terrain. Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI.

New Horizons also observed the smaller members of the Pluto system, which includes four other moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos. A new sneak-peak image of Hydra is the first to reveal its apparent irregular shape and its size, estimated to be about 27 by 20 miles (43 by 33 kilometers).

The observations also indicate Hydra's surface is probably coated with water ice. Future images will reveal more clues about the formation of this and the other moon billions of years ago. Spectroscopic data from New Horizons’ Ralph instruments reveal an abundance of methane ice, but with striking differences among regions across the frozen surface of Pluto.

Image above: Pluto: The Ice Plot Thickens. Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI.

The latest spectra from New Horizons Ralph instrument reveal an abundance of methane ice, but with striking differences from place to place across the frozen surface of Pluto.

“We just learned that in the north polar cap, methane ice is diluted in a thick, transparent slab of nitrogen ice resulting in strong absorption of infrared light,” said New Horizons co-investigator Will Grundy, Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona.  In one of the visually dark equatorial patches, the methane ice has shallower infrared absorptions indicative of a very different texture.  “The spectrum appears as if the ice is less diluted in nitrogen,” Grundy speculated “or that it has a different texture in that area.”

An Earthly example of different textures of a frozen substance:  a fluffy bank of clean snow is bright white, but compacted polar ice looks blue.  New Horizons’ surface composition team, led by Grundy, has begun the intricate process of analyzing Ralph data to determine the detailed compositions of the distinct regions on Pluto.

This is the first detailed image of Pluto from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array, part of the Ralph instrument on New Horizons.  The observations were made at three wavelengths of infrared light, which are invisible to the human eye. In this picture, blue corresponds to light of wavelengths 1.62 to 1.70 micrometers, a channel covering a medium-strong absorption band of methane ice, green (1.97 to 2.05 micrometers) represents a channel where methane ice does not absorb light, and red (2.30 to 2.33 micrometers) is a channel where the light is very heavily absorbed by methane ice.  The two areas outlined on Pluto show where Ralph observations obtained the spectral traces at the right.  Note that the methane absorptions (notable dips) in the spectrum from the northern region are much deeper than the dips in the spectrum from the dark patch.  The Ralph data were obtained by New Horizons on July 12, 2015.

Image above: Hydra Emerges from the Shadows. Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI.

Since its discovery in 2005, Pluto's moon Hydra has been known only as a fuzzy dot of uncertain shape, size, and reflectivity. Imaging obtained during New Horizons' historic transit of the Pluto-Charon system and transmitted to Earth early this morning has definitively resolved these fundamental properties of Pluto's outermost moon. Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) observations revealed an irregularly shaped body characterized by significant brightness variations over the surface. With a resolution of 2 miles (3 kilometers) per pixel, the LORRI image shows the tiny potato-shaped moon measures 27 miles (43 kilometers) by 20 miles (33 kilometers).

Like that of Charon, Hydra's surface is probably covered with water ice, the most abundant ice in the universe. Observed within Hydra's bright regions is a darker circular structure with a diameter of approximately 6 miles (10 kilometers). Hydra's reflectivity (the percentage of incident light reflected from the surface) is intermediate between that of Pluto and Charon. "New Horizons has finally nailed the basic physical properties of Hydra," says Hal Weaver, New Horizons Project Scientist and LORRI science operations lead. "We're going to see Hydra even better in the images yet to come."

Hydra was approximately 400,000 miles away from New Horizons when the image was acquired.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the mission, science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Follow the New Horizons mission on Twitter and use the hashtag #PlutoFlyby to join the conversation. Live updates also will be available on the mission Facebook page:

For more information on the New Horizons mission, including fact sheets, schedules, video and all the new images, visit: and

Images (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/Dwayne Brown/Laurie Cantillo/Karen Northon/Tricia Talbert/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Mike Buckley/Southwest Research Institute/Maria Stothoff.

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