Is That a Big Crater on Pluto? Pyramidal Mountain Found on Ceres

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015
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You’re probably as eager as I am for new images of Pluto and Ceres as both New Horizons and Dawn push ever closer to their respective little worlds. Recent photos, of which there are only a few, reveal some wild new features including what appears to a large crater on Pluto.

The latest photo of Pluto (lower left) and its largest moon Charon taken on June 29. A large possible crater-like feature is visible at lower right. Charon shows intriguing dark markings. Pluto's diameter is  1,471 miles (700 miles smaller than Earth's Moon); Charon is 750 miles across. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The latest photo of Pluto (lower left) and its largest moon Charon taken on June 29. A large possible crater-like feature is visible at lower right. Charon shows intriguing dark markings. Pluto’s diameter is 1,471 miles (700 miles smaller than Earth’s Moon); Charon is 750 miles across. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

In the end, this apparent large impact might only be a contrast effect or worse, an artifact of over-processing, but there’s no denying its strong resemblance to foreshortened, shadow-filled craters seen on the Moon and other moons. It’s also encouraging that an earlier photo from June 27 shows the same feature. But the “crater” is just so … big! Its size seems disproportionate to the Pluto’s globe and recalls Saturn’s 246-mile-wide moon Mimas with its 81-mile-wide crater Herschel.

Pluto (right) and Charon, with its unusual dark north polar cap or “anti-cap” in a photo taken by New Horizons’ long-range camera on June 19, 2015. Pluto’s 1,471 miles in diameter; Charon’s half that size. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto (right) and Charon, showing an unusual dark north polar cap or “anti-cap” in a photo taken by New Horizons’ long-range camera on June 19, 2015. The two were about 20 million miles away at the time. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Astronomers speculate the impact that gouged out Herschel came perilously close to shattering the moon to pieces. If it does turn out to be an crater, Pluto’s surface opposite the impact will likely show many fractures. Not to be outdone, the dwarf planet’s largest moon, Charon, is starting to show a personality of its own with a prominent dark north polar cap.

Since polar caps are normally bright, icy features, some have referred to this one as an “anti-polar cap”. Speaking of ice, the bright rim around Pluto in the photo above may be nitrogen frost condensing out of Pluto’s scant atmosphere as it slowly recedes from the Sun. Think how cold it must have to get for nitrogen to freeze out. How about -346° F (-210° C)! For new images of the Pluto system, be sure to check the New Horizons LORRI gallery page.

Dawn took this photo of an intriguing pyramidal mountain on Ceres on June  14 from an altitude of 2,700 miles. It rises 3 miles above a relatively smooth surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn took this photo of an intriguing pyramidal mountain (top center) on Ceres on June 14 from an altitude of 2,700 miles. It rises 3 miles above a relatively smooth surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Closer to home, new photos of Ceres show a peculiar, pyramid-shaped mountain towering 3 miles (5 km) high from a relatively smooth region between two large craters. Mountains poking from crater floors aren’t unusual. They’re tossed up after the crust later rebounds after a large impact. What makes this one unusual is the lack of an associated crater. Moreover, the mountain’s pale hue could indicate it’s younger than the surrounding landscape. As far as we can tell, it’s the only tall mountain on the face of the dwarf planet.

Another more overhead view of the mountain (right of center) taken by NASA's Dawn probe on June 6. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Another more overhead view of the mountain (right of center) taken by NASA’s Dawn probe on June 6. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Cropped version of the photo above. Notice the striations on the mountainside possibly from landslides. Credit:

Cropped version of the photo above. Notice the striations on the mountainside possibly from landslides. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The Dawn team also photographed that cluster of white spots again, this time with a very shot exposure in to eke out more details. What do you think? If you’re as interested in asteroids as I am, Italian astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, a frequent photo contributor to Universe Today, will host a special live Asteroid Day event today starting at 6 p.m. CDT (23:00 UT). Masi will review near-Earth asteroids, explain discovery techniques and observe several in real time.

The Dawn team greatly underexposed Ceres in order to tease out more details from the white spot cluster in this image made on June 15 from 2,700 miles altitude. I've lightened the limb of Ceres, so you can see the context better. Credit:

The Dawn team greatly underexposed Ceres in order to tease out more details from the white spot cluster in this image made on June 15 from 2,700 miles altitude. I’ve lightened the limb of Ceres to provide context. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn photographed the large crater at left along with an interesting chain of craters and possible fault or collapse features. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Dawn photographed the large crater at left along with an interesting chain of craters and possible fault or collapse structures. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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18 Responses

  1. Aqua4U says:

    Ahso.. things are getting curiouser and curiouser!

    In the forth image back, showing “Another more overhead view of the mountain…”, above and to the left is another bright spot which appears associated with a well defined crater. Continuing along a line between the mystery mountain and this bright spot something like a canyon is visible? A series of collapse craters?

    You noted the striations on that mountain, I’m sure you must have also noticed, in the overhead shot other fault lines running parallel to the mountain’s striations? I wonder if there is a relationship with a giant impact? Could those features indicate impact compression faulting? such as seen on other asteroids and comets? Too early to say? but we’ll know soon enough!

    • Bob King says:

      Aqua,
      Yes, good observation about the fault line. Is it related to the mountain? Maybe. With no associated crater however I wonder if it might not be something similar to a lunar volcanic dome (cryo-dome?) though at 5 km it seems absurdly high for that.

      • Aqua4U says:

        Yes.. that translates into 3.1 miles up! or roughly 16,368 feet. The low gravity making that possible? Cryo-dome sounds right, much better than something exotic, like a passing miniature black hole?

      • Paul Gracey says:

        Absurdly high by earth geologic standards, of course, but in the lower gravity of Ceres not so absurd, perhaps. Olympus Mons on Mars is absurdly high, but it was not constrained by earth-like shifting plate tectonics in its formation, which took place all in one location.

  2. laurele says:

    Could that giant crater on Pluto have been caused by the impact that created Charon?

  3. FarAwayLongAgo says:

    The pyramid on Ceres is soon to be explained by a new theory which describes how the great pyramids of Giza formed naturally. Maybe by some impact, or volcanism, or sand storms or crystallization or erosion or whatever. If pyramids form naturally on Ceres then they must form naturally on Earth too.

    Pyramids are simple geometric shapes, easy to explain. Admittedly, that giant sphinx with a woman’s face, a lion’s body and an eagle’s wings, is a bit harder to explain with random chance. But statistically it is only one outlier out there lying to us… (or maybe there are many small sphixes in Egypt? Damn it for cosmology!)

    • Jon Souter says:

      Apologies if you’re being satirical in your post (there’s no smilies or other subtle clues to indicate this) – but the Great Pyramids and The Sphynx were definitely not constructed by geological processes.

      They’re actually made up of thousands of individual blocks of rock that have been expertly crafted by Egyptian stone-masons and somehow dragged into place using brute force / slave labour / ingenious lost ancient technologies (there’s still much debate about the logistics of how this was achieved given the extreme weight of each precision-carved block).

      Geologists have even worked out the specific sites from where the stone was excavated.

    • Bo Zo says:

      You forgot the temple at Karnak. And the library of Alexandria. And the Falafel King drive thru in Cairo.

  4. astrostu says:

    Keep in mind that the images from New Horizons are nearly “full moon” like and so apparent shadows/highlights that you’d normally use to distinguish craters are not present. So you can’t really say it’s a crater … yet.

  5. Ford Prefect says:

    Name the craters after pornographic movie stars. My favorite is Dagmar. Want to marry him now that it is legal and our new way of life !

  6. splortz says:

    http://i2.wp.com/www.universetoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Pluto-June-27-20.9mK-BaalkeProcess_L.jpg

    Clearly, we can see that Pluto is formed by clearing Minecraft blocks from the outer solar system.

  7. A yemeni researcher in astronomy Adnan Al-Shawafi precedes NASA in
    explaining the facts about Pluto

    The media center of New Horizon (a space mission to explore Pluto the
    planet) has published in 22 June 2015 fresh photos of Pluto taken from
    a closer distance as the Spaceship got nearer showing that the planet
    is more than double in size compared to previous photos. The new
    photos revealed that Pluto is not perfectly spherical despite earlier
    announcement by the same center (11 June 2015) in which they ruled out
    Pluto is not spherical even it appeared like that due to technical
    failure in processing the then photos. But when those photos were
    analyzed by the researcher Adnan Al Shawafi, he concluded that the
    planet is not spherical in shape and those conclusions have been sent
    to NASA on 22nd of June 2015 and were published on that same date in
    his own blogging snd related forums as well as social media networks.
    Yemeni news websites followed suit and published his conclusions
    asserting that Pluto is not perfecly spherical or elliptical on 23rd
    of June 2015 plus other findings arrived at by the researcher based on
    his self-concluded theory on Compound Balance Balls revealed in 2013.
    Hence, this shall be considered a prescience by the researcher and an
    assertion of the scientific power of the theory he relied on.

    In this respect, the researcher says that he didn’t imitates the
    approach followed by NASA and other science bodies in charge of the
    New Horizon mission when it comes to explaining the layout of of photo
    taken. Meanwhile, my hypothesis is built on eight laws and eight math
    formulas all of them concentrated on the coordinates of Pluto planet
    and its moon using the previously taken photos which NASA failed to
    conclude – using those same old photos – to reveal whether the planet
    is not spherical and announced vague explanations.

    The researcher says also that he is pleased to table his scientific
    explanation to NASA so to understand the
    rebound movement (vibratory – both the planet and its moon move back and fro and never moves in a fixed elliptical orbit). Such movement,
    he says, is due to the fact that the planet is not perfectly spherical
    which goes against NASA conclusion describing the planet movement as
    “orbital dance” without explaining what cause such movement. NASA
    scientists going to say the reason is that the Planet body center is not
    located right in the center i.e. one part has more mass than the
    other, and this is not a reasonable evidence though the researcher has
    raised such issue to assure that we do understand what they have and
    what we do and that no announcement made yet to show that the dual
    mass center outside the planet is changing and not at the same
    distance from the planet. I do hope that NASA reveals such
    informations in the days to come.

    Researcher conclusions was entitled ” A Yemeni astronomy researcher
    tables some inquires for NASA to explain the vagueness facing Apollo
    mission to understand the variation in the glow on the Pluto surface ”
    and it was as follows .
    New Horizon is a NASA- sponsored mission which is set to study Pluto –
    the Planet- and its moons as well as the Cabiier belt. This spaceship
    was launched in 19 June 2006 from the earth and has been speeding up
    and accelerating to reach the tiny planet “Pluto”. It runs at an
    average speed on 1 million KM/day and , thus, considered to be the
    speediest man-made machine. It was expected to reach the target by14
    June 2015. The mission has succeeded in taking some photos of the
    Pluto and recently scientists and New Horizon Team have been
    considering the closest photos taken of the planet this year, which
    shows a great variation in the shining surface of the Pluto amid some
    explanations, which said that it was due to the polar cover.
    Nevertheless, scientists and analyzing team at New Horizon still face
    a lot of opacity in explaining the photo taken.
    Early on, the Yemeni scientists Adnan Al Shawafi – astronomy
    researcher – has been following the mission and all materials
    published to that end. After examining and analyzing the photos, Mr.
    Al Shawafi arrived at two conclusions or, more correctly, the same
    finding with two different explanations as follows:
    First conclusion: it is based on applicable laws and concepts which
    says that the variation in shininess is due to the irregular shape of
    Pluto since it is not a perfectly spherical or elliptical and the
    evidence of that is its regressive movement (vibratory movement back
    and fro and never moves in a regular elliptical orbit) around its
    A common center of mass located outside its center. The same regressive movement
    applies its double moon Sharon i.e. the distance between Sharon the
    moon and Pluto the planet is changing up and down but it was not
    recognizable because of the narrow vision angle. The Charon orbital
    movement around the Pluto. No attention was given as well because the
    Moon surface movement is irregular since Charon day equals its month
    and that the time it takes to rotate around itself equals the time
    used to rotate around Pluto. Therefore, the vision dimensions of Charon
    and its surface is fixed all the time with Pluto.
    The reason why the distance between the planet and its moon keep
    changing can also be attributed to the fact that Pluto’s mass is not
    concentrated in the center of the planet. In other words, if we break
    it into halves, we will see that one half has larger mass than the
    other half by over 20%. This explanation is developed following an
    in-depth study of the probabilities and on the applicable concepts.

    The second conclusion: is the same explanation of movement furnished
    in the hypothesis tabled by the researcher Adnan Al Shawafi and
    published in 2013 which contains 8 laws and 8 math formulas explaining
    the balance of orbs in compound universal systems as well as
    additional dimensions of the universe. In his hypothesis, the
    researcher developed a set of explanations and predictions concerning
    planet Pluto including its common balance with its moon Sharon and
    that Pluto is rotating around a factitious center outside its body at
    a distance of 5400 km though the existing laws and circulated
    information did not conclude to even 50% of the distance concluded by
    the researcher even before publishing his hypothesis and related
    articles on the balance of planet Pluto published in the web and key
    words can be used to search for these submissions.
    My publications were to show my persistence and confidence in my
    hypothesis and the dimensions of the Pluto being a spherical in shape
    with an approximate area of its space 16.69 million km2. The newly
    released photos obtained from New Horizon asserts the fact that
    Pluto’s shape is irregular and that the distance can go up and down by
    20% which is still double the distance known and proven by gravity
    laws and other laws in use although I believe there is a 100%
    difference in the estimated distance between Pluto center and the
    common center of mass outside Pluto’s according to the Balance
    Balls hypothesis.

    Hence, the researcher Adnan Al Shawafi calls on NASA and New Horizon
    mission to pay due attention to his explanations and conclusions
    elucidating the variation found in the photos taken by New Horizon
    which he deemed it worth sharing to further analyze the vagueness
    under question.

    All rights reserved

  8. Jon Souter says:

    Hopefully we’ll see fresh images of Pluto in the very near future that will clear up whether or not it is irregular in shape.

    It is possible that the recent jagged-looking image was the result of image capture / processing artifacts (space is a difficult environment in which to capture good quality images – and often there are strange artifacts present in images resulting from the lossy nature of techniques used to capture and enhance the imagery).

    We’re only a few short weeks from the best view of Pluto we’ll likely have for many decades.

  9. Steven says:

    If it is a massive crater on Pluto and it is dynamically young, are there bodies in the solar system other than the pluto system that could be sourced to such a collision? Such might appear to be comets…

    ah… http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2004KFNT…20..283G

  10. Owain55 says:

    I’ve been on the edge of my seat since 2006 waiting for this encounter. The final [original] planet revealed at last. Oh happy day!! 😉

  11. wreckhur says:

    Can someone help me out? In the last picture of this story, Dawn has taken a very high resolution close up picture of a crater on Ceres. Yet when it comes to the “Bright Spots” of Ceres, the pictures are grainy and appear to show very little detail as well as being the furthest thing from a close up. As a matter of fact, it looks like the zoom feature has been set to show the widest area possible of Ceres, when looking at the “Bright Spots”. Why the disparity in detail?

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