NASA’s New Horizons Makes Major Discoveries: Young Ice Mountains on Pluto and Crispy Young Chasms on Charon

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. Credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI
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APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY, LAUREL, MD – Scientists leading NASA’s historic New Horizons mission to the Pluto system announced the first of what is certain to be a tidal wave of new discoveries, including the totally unexpected finding of young ice mountains at Pluto and crispy clear views of young fractures on its largest moon Charon, at a NASA media briefing today (July 15) at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

A treasure trove of long awaited data has begun streaming back to Mission Control at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to the mouth watering delight of researchers and NASA.

With the first ever flyby of Pluto, America completed the initial up close reconnaissance of the planets in our solar system. Pluto was the last unexplored planet, building on missions that exactly started 50 years ago in 1965 when Mariner IV flew past Mars.

“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.”

Crisp new view of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon shows a swath of cliffs and troughs stretches about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from left to right, suggesting widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust, likely a result of internal processes. At upper right, along the moon’s curving edge, is a canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles (7 to 9 kilometers) deep.  Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI
Crisp new view of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon shows a swath of cliffs and troughs stretches about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from left to right, suggesting widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust, likely a result of internal processes. At upper right, along the moon’s curving edge, is a canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles (7 to 9 kilometers) deep. Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI

Today the team announced that New Horizons has already made a totally unexpected discovery showing clear evidence of ice mountains on Pluto’s surface in the bright area informally known as the ‘big heart of Pluto.’

The new close-up image released today showed an icy mountain range near the base of the heart with peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface, announced John Spencer, New Horizons science team co-investigator at the media briefing.

“It’s a very young surface, probably formed less than 100 million years old,’ said Spencer. “It may be active now.”

Spencer also announce that the heart shaped region will now be named “Tombaugh Reggio” in honor of Clyde Tombaugh, the American astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.

“We are seeing water ice.”

“I never would have imagined this!” Spencer exclaimed.

“And I’m very surprised that there are no craters in the first high resolution images.”

The large, heart-shaped region is front and center. Several craters are seen and much of the surface looks reworked rather than ancient. Credit: NASA
Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 13, 2015 when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The large, heart-shaped region is front and center. Several craters are seen and much of the surface looks reworked rather than ancient. Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI

The finding of ice mountains has major scientific implications.

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, said the team.

“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” says Spencer of SwRI.

NASA announces discovery of icy mountain ranges on Pluto at July 15 media briefing at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA announces discovery of icy mountain ranges on Pluto at July 15 media briefing at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Pluto may have internal activity. There may be geysers or cryovolcanoes,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, said during the media briefing. However there is no evidence for them yet.

Additional high resolution images for “Tombaugh Reggio” area are being transmitted back to Earth today and will continue.

“Finding a mountain range of ice is a complete surprise,” Stern noted.

After a nine year voyage through interplanetary space, New Horizons barreled past the Pluto system on Tuesday, July 14 for a history making first ever flyby at over 31,000 mph (49,600 kph), and survived the passage by swooping barely 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) above the planet’s amazingly diverse surface.

The team had to wait another 12 hours for confirmation that the spacecraft lived through the daring encounter when signals were reacquired as planned at 8:53 p.m. EDT last night. Since New Horizons swung past Pluto to continue its voyage, the probe is now more than million miles outbound just 24 hours later.

NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, second from left, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), second from right, and New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain of APL, right, are seen at the conclusion of a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, second from left, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), second from right, and New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain of APL, right, are seen at the conclusion of a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The New Frontiers spacecraft was built by a team led by Stern and included researchers from SwRI and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. APL also operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulates the New Horizons team after successful Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015, to cheering crowd at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, during  live NASA TV media briefing. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulates the New Horizons team after successful Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015, to cheering crowd at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, during live NASA TV media briefing. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of the Pluto flyby on July 14 from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Big Discovery from NASA’s New Horizons; Pluto is Biggest Kuiper Belt Body

Plutophiles everywhere rejoice. On the eve of history’s first ever up close flyby of mysterious Pluto on Tuesday morning July 14 making the first detailed scientific observations, NASA’s New Horizons has made a big discovery about one of the most basic questions regarding distant Pluto. How big is it?

Measurements by New Horizons gathered just in the past few days as the spacecraft barrels towards the Pluto planetary system now confirm that Pluto is indeed the biggest object in the vast region beyond the orbit of Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt.

Pluto is thus the undisputed King of the Kuiper Belt!

Pluto measures 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers) in diameter, which is at the higher end of the range of previous estimates.

The big news was announced today, by New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, during a live media briefing at Pluto mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

“This settles the debate about the largest object in the Kuiper Belt,” Stern noted.

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New Horizons will swoop to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,750 miles) of Pluto’s surface and about 17,900 miles (28,800 kilometers) from Charon during closest approach at approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) on July 14.

The new and definitive measurement of Pluto’s size is based on images taken by the high resolution Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to make this determination.

“The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” said mission scientist Bill McKinnon, Washington University, St. Louis.

Pluto was the first planet discovered by an American, Clyde Tombaugh.

Pluto’s “Heart” is seen in this new image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) received on July 8, 2015 after normal science operations resumed following the scary July 4 safe mode anomaly that briefing shut down all science operations.   The LORRI image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument.   Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI
Pluto’s “Heart” is seen in this new image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) received on July 8, 2015 after normal science operations resumed following the scary July 4 safe mode anomaly that briefing shut down all science operations. The LORRI image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument. Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

Pluto is bigger than Eris, another big Kuiper Belt object discovered in 2005 by Mike Brown of Caltech, which is much further out from the Sun than Pluto. The discovery of Eris further fueled the controversial debate about the status of Pluto’s planethood.

Eris comes in second in size in the Kuiper Belt at only 1,445 miles (2,326 km) in diameter.

On July 11, 2015, New Horizons captured a world that is growing more fascinating by the day. For the first time on Pluto, this view reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater. Rotating into view is the bright heart-shaped feature that will be seen in more detail during New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14. The annotated version includes a diagram indicating Pluto’s north pole, equator, and central meridian. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
On July 11, 2015, New Horizons captured a world that is growing more fascinating by the day. For the first time on Pluto, this view reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater. Rotating into view is the bright heart-shaped feature that will be seen in more detail during New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14. The annotated version includes a diagram indicating Pluto’s north pole, equator, and central meridian.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Stern also noted that because Pluto is slight bigger than the average of previous estimates, its density is slightly lower than previously thought. Therefore the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher and the fraction of rock is slightly lower. But further data is required to pin the density down more precisely.

The uncertainty in Pluto’s size has persisted for decades and was due to the fact that Pluto has a very tenuous atmosphere composed of nitrogen.

Furthermore Pluto’s lowest atmospheric layer called the troposphere, is shallower than previously believed.

On the other hand, its largest moon Charon with which it forms a double planet, lacks a substantial atmosphere and its size was known with near certainty based on ground-based telescopic observation.

New Horizons LORRI imagery has confirmed that Charon measures 751 miles (1208 km) kilometers) across.

Stern also confirmed that frigid Pluto also has a polar cap composed of methane and nitrogen ices based on measurements from the Alice instrument.

LORRI has also zoomed in on two of Pluto’s smaller moons, Nix and Hydra.

“We knew from the time we designed our flyby that we would only be able to study the small moons in detail for just a few days before closest approach,” said Stern. “Now, deep inside Pluto’s sphere of influence, that time has come.”

The approximate sizes of Pluto’s moons Nix and Hydra compared to Denver, Colorado. While Nix and Hydra are illustrated as circles in this diagram, mission scientists anticipate that future observations by New Horizons will show that they are irregular in shape.  Credits: JHUAPL/Google
The approximate sizes of Pluto’s moons Nix and Hydra compared to Denver, Colorado. While Nix and Hydra are illustrated as circles in this diagram, mission scientists anticipate that future observations by New Horizons will show that they are irregular in shape. Credits: JHUAPL/Google

But because they are so small, accurate measurement with LORRI could only be made in the final week prior to the July 14 flyby.

Nix is estimated to be about 20 miles (about 35 kilometers) across, while Hydra is roughly 30 miles (roughly 45 kilometers) across. These sizes lead mission scientists to conclude that their surfaces are quite bright, possibly due to the presence of ice.

Determinations about Pluto’s two smallest moons, Kerberos and Styx, will be made later at some point during the 16-month long playback of data after the July 14 encounter.

It has been three decades since we last visited planetary bodies at the outer reaches of our solar system when Voyager 2 flew past Uranus and Neptune in 1986 and 1989.

New Horizons' last look at Pluto's Charon-facing hemisphere reveals the highest resolution view of four intriguing darks spots for decades to come.  This image, taken early the morning of July 11, 2015, shows newly-resolved linear features above the equatorial region that intersect, suggestive of polygonal shapes. This image was captured when the spacecraft was 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
New Horizons’ last look at Pluto’s Charon-facing hemisphere reveals the highest resolution view of four intriguing darks spots for decades to come. This image, taken early the morning of July 11, 2015, shows newly-resolved linear features above the equatorial region that intersect, suggestive of polygonal shapes. This image was captured when the spacecraft was 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

New Horizons is closing in fast on its quarry at a whopping 31,000 mph (49,600 kph) after a nine year interplanetary voyage and is now less than half a million miles away, in the final hours before closest approach.

The New Frontiers spacecraft was built by a team led by Stern and included researchers from SwRI and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. APL also operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of the Pluto flyby on July 14 from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Charon Up Close Reveals Colossal Chasms and Craters: 1 Day and 1 Million Miles Out from Pluto Flyby

Chasms, craters, and a dark north polar region are revealed in this image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on July 11, 2015. The annotated version includes a diagram showing Charon’s north pole, equator, and central meridian, with the features highlighted. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
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In the final days before humankinds first ever flyby of mysterious and tantalizing Pluto for the history making up close visit on Tuesday, July 14, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has just delivered the sharpest and most stunning view yet of its binary companion Charon – and unveiled it to be a geologically rich world with colossal chasms, a multitude of craters and a humongous dark splotch in the northern regions. It’s obviously quite different in appearance and varies in composition from its larger planetary host.

Indeed the largest of Charon’s chasms stretches farther than Earth’s Grand Canyon. And it’s taken New Horizons over nine years speeding through space – since launching back in 2006 as the fastest spacecraft departing Earth – to get close enough to see these wonders for the first time.

“The most pronounced chasm, which lies in the southern hemisphere, is longer and miles deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon,” says William McKinnon, deputy lead scientist with New Horizon’s Geology and Geophysics investigation team, in a NASA statement.

To put that into perspective, consider this; Charon is only about 750 miles (1200 kilometers) across, about half the diameter of Pluto. The Grand Canyon stretches 277 miles (446 km) across the western United States and is up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and attains a depth of over a mile (6093 feet or 1857 meters). Thus Charon’s ‘Grand Canyon’ is truly gargantuan in comparison to its moons size when compared to our Grand Canyon.

At 1471 miles (2368 km) across, Pluto is about half the diameter of the United States. Both Pluto and Charon and largely composed of icy materials, with much less rock compared to the terrestrial planets like Earth.

“This is the first clear evidence of faulting and surface disruption on Charon,” says McKinnon, who is based at the Washington University in St. Louis.

“New Horizons has transformed our view of this distant moon from a nearly featureless ball of ice to a world displaying all kinds of geologic activity.”

Chasms, craters, and a dark north polar region are revealed in this image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on July 11, 2015.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Chasms, craters, and a dark north polar region are revealed in this image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on July 11, 2015. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The exquisite new image of Charon’s chasms and canyons was just released by NASA this evening, Sunday, July 12. It was taken yesterday, Saturday, July 11, by New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at a distance of 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto and Charon, and radioed back to Earth today.

The largest crater seen in the July 11 images lies near Charon’s south pole and is about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) across.

“The brightness of the rays of material blasted out of the crater suggest it formed relatively recently in geologic terms, during a collision with a small body some time in the last billion million years,” says the team.

“The darkness of the crater’s floor is especially intriguing,” says McKinnon.

“One explanation is that the crater has exposed a different type of icy material than the more reflective ices that lie on the surface. Another possibility is that the ice in the crater floor is the same material as its surroundings but has a larger ice grain size, which reflects less sunlight. In this scenario, the impactor that gouged the crater melted the ice in the crater floor, which then refroze into larger grains.”

New Horizons is now merely one day and one million miles (1.6 million km) out from its history making encounter with the Pluto planetary system – some three billion miles (4.8 billion km) from Earth. It passed the million mile milestone at 11:23 p.m. EDT, Sunday night July 12.

And its closing in fast on its quarry at a whopping 31,000 mph (49,600 kph) after a nine year interplanetary voyage.

Facts about Pluto. Credit: NASA
Facts about Pluto. Credit: NASA

The high resolution LORRI imager is achieving an image resolution of 5 mile per pixel at this moment at a million miles away. And it will gets thousands of times better during the closest approach.

“Features as small as the lakes in New York’s Central Park and wharfs on the Hudson will be resolved,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, during a live mission update today, July 12. The image resolution will reach a maximum of about 230 feet (70 meters).

New Horizons suite of seven science instruments will collected 44 gigabits of data during the flyby encounter period lasting from July 7 to July 16, from Pluto, Charon and the four tiny moons – Hydra, Styx, Nix and Kerberos.

New Horizons will swoop to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,750 miles) of Pluto’s surface and about 17,900 miles (28,800 kilometers) from Charon during closest approach at approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) on July 14.

Pluto and Charon are gravitationally locked with an orbital period of 6.4 days, so they always show the same face to one another. They orbit about 12,160 mi (19,570 kilometers) apart but about a center of gravity, or barycenter, above the surface of Pluto, unlike any of the other major bodies in our solar system.

Image of Pluto and Charon from July 8, 2015; color information obtained earlier in the mission from the Ralph instrument has been added.  Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI
Image of Pluto and Charon from July 8, 2015; color information obtained earlier in the mission from the Ralph instrument has been added. Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

Charon is by far the largest of Pluto’s five moons. The new July 11 image also shows that it sports a “mysterious dark region” stretching some 200 miles across near the north pole.

Pluto is the last of the nine classical planets to be explored up close and completes the initial the initial reconnaissance of the solar system nearly six decades after the dawn of the space age. It represents a whole new class of objects known as the ice dwarfs, located in the Kuiper Belt – a relic of solar system formation replete with countless bodies.

It has been three decades since we last visited planetary bodies at the outer reaches of our solar system when Voyager 2 flew past Uranus and Neptune in 1986 and 1989.

New Horizons trajectory to the Pluto System. Credit: NASA
New Horizons trajectory to the Pluto System. Credit: NASA

The New Frontiers spacecraft was built by a team led by Stern and included researchers from SwRI and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. APL also operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of the Pluto flyby on July 14 from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Last, Best Look at Pluto’s Far Side and Four Perplexing Spots: 2 Days Out from Flyby

New Horizons’ last look at Pluto’s Charon-facing hemisphere reveals the highest resolution view of four intriguing darks spots for decades to come. This image, taken early the morning of July 11, 2015, shows newly-resolved linear features above the equatorial region that intersect, suggestive of polygonal shapes. This image was captured when the spacecraft was 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
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Today (July 11) we got our last, best and clearest look at a quartet of perplexing dark spots on Pluto’s far side from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft – now just two days and two million miles (4 million km) out from history’s first ever up close flyby of the Pluto system on Tuesday, July 14.

The four puzzling spots (see above) are located on the hemisphere of Pluto which always faces its largest moon, Charon, and have captivated the scientists and public alike. Pluto and Charon are gravitationally locked with an orbital period of 6.4 days.

Over only the past few days, we are finally witnessing an amazing assortment of geological wonders emerge into focus from these never before seen worlds – as promised by the New Horizons team over a decade ago.

Be sure to take a good hard look at the image, because these spots and Pluto’s Charon-facing hemisphere will not be visible to New Horizons cameras and spectrometers during the historic July 14 encounter as the spacecraft whizzes by the binary worlds at speeds of some 30,800 miles per hour (more than 48,600 kilometers per hour) for their first up close reconnaissance.

And it’s likely to be many decades before the next visitor from Earth arrives at the frigid worlds at the far flung reaches of our solar system for a longer look, hopefully from orbit.

“The [July 11] image is the last, best look that anyone will have of Pluto’s far side for decades to come,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.

The image of the mysterious spots was taken earlier today (July 11) by New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at a distance of 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto, and just released by NASA. The image resolution is 10 miles per pixel. One week ago it was only 40 miles per pixel.

They were first seen only in very recent LORRI images as Pluto’s disk finally was resolved and are located in a Missouri sized area about 300 miles (480 kilometers) across and above the equatorial region.

But until today they were still rather fuzzy – see image below from July 3! What a difference a few million miles (km) makes!

Latest color image of Pluto taken on July 3, 2015. Best yet image of Pluto was taken by the LORRI imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 3, 2015 at a distance of 7.8 million mi (12.5 million km), just prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Color data taken from the Ralph instrument gathered earlier in the mission.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Latest color image of Pluto taken on July 3, 2015. Best yet image of Pluto was taken by the LORRI imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 3, 2015 at a distance of 7.8 million mi (12.5 million km), just prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Color data taken from the Ralph instrument gathered earlier in the mission. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

“The Pluto system is totally unknown territory,” said Dr. John Spencer, New Horizons co-investigator at today’s (July 11) daily live briefing from NASA and the New Horizons team.

“Pluto is like nowhere we’ve even been before. It is unlike anything we’ve visited before.”

Now, with the $700 million NASA planetary probe millions of miles closer to the double planet, the picture resolution has increased dramatically and the team can at least speculate.

Researchers say the quartet of “equally spaced” dark splotches are “suggestive of polygonal shapes” and the “boundaries between the dark and bright terrains are irregular and sharply defined.”

“It’s weird that they’re spaced so regularly,” says New Horizons program scientist Curt Niebur at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

However their nature remains “intriguing” and truly “unknown.”

“We can’t tell whether they’re plateaus or plains, or whether they’re brightness variations on a completely smooth surface,” added Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California.

“It’s amazing what we are seeing now in the images, showing us things we’ve never seen before,” said Spencer.

“Every day we see things we never knew before. We see these crazy black and white patterns. And we have no idea what these mean.”

Answering these questions and more is what the encounter is all about.

Pluto is just chock full of mysteries, with new ones emerging every day as New Horizons at last homes in on its quarry, and the planet grows from a spot to an enlarging disk with never before seen surface features, three billion miles from Earth after an interplanetary journey of some nine and a half years.

“We see circular things and wonder are those craters? Or are they something else,” Spencer elaborated.

“We saw circular features on Neptune’s moon Triton that are not craters. So we should know in a few days . But right now we are just having an awful lot of fun just speculating. It’s just amazing.”

Until a few days ago, we didn’t know that “the other Red Planet” had a big bright heart and a dark ‘whale-shaped’ feature – see my earlier articles; here and here.

Pluto’s “Heart” is seen in this new image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) received on July 8, 2015 after normal science operations resumed following the scary July 4 safe mode anomaly that briefing shut down all science operations.   The LORRI image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument.   Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI
Pluto’s “Heart” is seen in this new image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) received on July 8, 2015 after normal science operations resumed following the scary July 4 safe mode anomaly that briefing shut down all science operations. The LORRI image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument. Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

“When we combine images like this of the far side with composition and color data the spacecraft has already acquired but not yet sent to Earth, we expect to be able to read the history of this face of Pluto,” Moore explained.

New Horizons will swoop to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,750 miles) of Pluto’s surface and about 17,900 miles (28,800 kilometers) from Charon during closest approach at approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) on July 14.

The probe was launched back on Jan. 19, 2006 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on a 9 year voyage of over 3.6 billion miles (5.7 billion km).

Pluto is the last of the nine classical planets to be explored up close and completes the initial the initial reconnaissance of the solar system nearly six decades after the dawn of the space age. It represents a whole new class of objects.

“Pluto is a member of a whole new family of objects,” said Jim Green, director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, in today’s live Pluto update.

“We call that the Kuiper Belt. And it is the outer solar system.”

New Horizons is equipped with a suite of seven science instruments gathering data during the approach and encounter phases with the Pluto system.

Graphic shows data gathered by New Horizons particle and plasma science instruments from 2 million miles out on July 11, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Graphic shows data gathered by New Horizons particle and plasma science instruments from 2 million miles out on July 11, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The New Frontiers spacecraft was built by a team led by Stern and included researchers from SwRI and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. APL also operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Tantalizing signs of geology on Pluto are revealed in this image from New Horizons taken on July 9, 2015 from 3.3 million miles (5.4 million km) away. This annotated version shows the large dark feature nicknamed "the whale" that straddles Pluto's equator, a swirly band and a curious polygonal outline. At lower is a reference globe showing Pluto’s orientation in the image, with the equator and central meridian in bold. Credit:  NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI
Tantalizing signs of geology on Pluto are revealed in this image from New Horizons taken on July 9, 2015 from 3.3 million miles (5.4 million km) away. This annotated version shows the large dark feature nicknamed “the whale” that straddles Pluto’s equator, a swirly band and a curious polygonal outline. At lower is a reference globe showing Pluto’s orientation in the image, with the equator and central meridian in bold. Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI