Pluto’s Moons Nix and Hydra Get Real / New Pluto Mountain Range Discovered

Of course they’ve always been real worlds. They just never looked that way. We’ve only known of their existence since 2005, when astronomers with the Pluto Companion Search Team spotted them using the Hubble Space Telescope. Never more than faint points of light, each is now revealed as a distinct, if tiny, world.

“Before last week, Hydra was just a faint point of light, so it’s a surreal experience to see it become an actual place, as we see its shape and spot recognizable features on its surface for the first time,” said New Horizons mission science collaborator Ted Stryk.

A. Stern (SwRI) and Z. Levay (STScI)
Nix and Hydra compared to “giants” Pluto and its largest moon Charon. Pluto measures 1,473 miles in diameter and Charon 790 miles. A. Stern (SwRI) and Z. Levay (STScI)

Nix looks like a strawberry-flavored jelly bean, but that reddish region with its vaguely bulls-eye shape hints at a possible crater on this 26 miles (42 km) long by 22 miles (36 km) wide moon. Hydra, which measures 34 x 25 miles (55 x 40 km), displays two large craters, one tilted to face the Sun (top) and the other almost fully in shadow. Differences in brightness across Hydra suggest differences in surface composition.

Now we’ve seen three of Pluto’ family of five satellites. Expect images of Pluto’s most recently discovered moons, Styx and Kerberos, to be transmitted to Earth no later than mid-October.

Formation of Pluto's moons. 1: a Kuiper belt object approaches Pluto; 2: it impacts Pluto; 3: a dust ring forms around Pluto; 4: the debris aggregates to form Charon; 5: Pluto and Charon relax into spherical bodies.
Formation of Pluto’s moons. 1: a Kuiper belt object approaches Pluto; 2: it impacts Pluto; 3: a dust ring forms around Pluto; 4: the debris aggregates to form Charon; 5: Pluto and Charon relax into spherical bodies. Smaller pieces became the irregularly-shaped moons Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. Credit: Wikipedia

All of Pluto’s satellites are believed to have been created in what’s now referred to as “The Big Whack”, a long-ago collision between Pluto and another planetary body. A similar scenario probably played out at Earth as well, leading to the formation of our own Moon. In Pluto’s case, most of the material pulled together to form Charon; the leftover chips became the smaller satellites. Their sizes are too small for self-gravity to crush them into spheres, hence their irregular shapes. The moons’ neatly circular orbits about Pluto suggest they formed together rather than being captured willy-nilly from the Kuiper Belt.

A newly discovered mountain range lies near the southwestern margin of Pluto’s Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region), situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain. This image was acquired by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) and received on Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
A newly discovered mountain range lies near the southwestern margin of Pluto’s Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region), situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain (left). This image taken on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 km) and received on Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile (1 km) across are visible.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Update: This just in. Take a look at this new close-up of Pluto that features a newly discovered mountain range in southwestern Tombaugh Regio. Sure looks like ice flows. This is a complex little dwarf planet!

Below we have a special treat just in this morning (July 22) — mosaics and montages of Pluto and family created by Damian Peach from New Horizons images. Be sure to click to see the hi-res versions. Enjoy!

Color montage of Pluto's mountains created by Damian Peach using New Horizons imagery
Close up mosaic of a part of Tombaugh Regio created by Damian Peach using New Horizons imagery
The Pluto system with Charon (upper right), Nix and Hydra. Credit: NASA, Damian Peach
The Pluto system with Charon (upper right), Nix and Hydra. Credit: NASA, Damian Peach
Views of Pluto during New Horizons' approach. Credit: NASA/Damian Peach
Views of Pluto during New Horizons’ approach. Credit: NASA/Damian Peach
Charon approach from New Horizons. Credit: NASA/Damian Peach
Charon approach from New Horizons. Credit: NASA/Damian Peach