Pluto’s Heart of the Heart Swathed in Newly Discovered Icy Mountains and Vast Plains

APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY, LAUREL, MD – The highest resolution images ever taken of Pluto by humanity’s first spacecraft ever to visit the last planet in our solar system revealed unanticipated new discoveries of ice mountains as tall as the Rockies and vast craterless plains spanning hundreds of miles (kilometers) across – are now shown in our newly created context mosaic (featured above and below) of the heart-shaped ‘Tombaugh Regio’ area that dominates the alien planet’s surface.

These stunning and astoundingly young features only now unveiled on Pluto’s surface were created in very recent times, geologically speaking said top scientists leading NASA’s resounding successful New Horizons mission, at a media briefing on July 17.

This first high resolution surface mosaic was created from a newly unveiled series of black and white images centered in the Heart of Pluto’s huge ‘Heart, including the ice mountains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ and icy plains of ‘Norgay Montes.’

They were captured by New Horizons’ high resolution Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 as the probe barreled past the Pluto-Charon binary planet system only four days ago on Tuesday, July 14, at over 31,000 mph (49,600 kph).

These highest resolution LORRI images focused on the “Heart of the Heart” of Pluto have now been stitched into a mosaic by the image processing team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

Pluto’s bright heart-shaped region has now been informally renamed “Tombaugh Regio,’ announced John Spencer, New Horizons science team co-investigator at the post flyby media briefing on July 15.

The mosaic of Pluto’s ‘Tombaugh Regio’ is based on the initial imagery released so far as of July 17.

This annotated view of a portion of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), named for Earth’s first artificial satellite, shows an array of enigmatic features. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs, some of which contain darker materials. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
This annotated view of a portion of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), named for Earth’s first artificial satellite, shows an array of enigmatic features. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs, some of which contain darker materials. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

A pair of high resolution LORRI images was aimed at areas now informally named Norgay Montes (Norgay Mountains) and Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain).

Norgay Montes is informally named for Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two humans to reach the summit of Mount Everest, along with Sir Edmund Hillary. Sputnik Planum is informally named for Earth’s first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.

The two LORRI images are draped over a wider, lower resolution view of Tombaugh Regio – in annotated and unannotated versions. This is highest resolution currently available.

To the left of the mosaic are two small inserts showing possible “wind streaks” say the researchers.

To the right of the mosaic is a global view of Pluto showing the location of Tombaugh Regio and also outlined to show the precise location of the high resolution LORRI mosaic.

Hi Res mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto and focuses on icy mountain ranges of ‘Norgay Montes’ and ice plains of ‘Sputnik Planum.’ The new mosaic combines highest resolution imagery captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015.   Inset at left shows possible wind streaks.  Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of huge heart-shaped region in context.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hi Res mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto and focuses on icy mountain ranges of ‘Norgay Montes’ and ice plains of ‘Sputnik Planum.’ The new mosaic combines highest resolution imagery captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015. Inset at left shows possible wind streaks. Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of huge heart-shaped region in context. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The LORRI images were taken from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) from the surface of the planet about 1.5 hours prior to the closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14. The images easily resolve structures smaller than a mile across.

The frozen region of Norgay Montes is situated north of Pluto’s icy mountain range at Sputnik Planum.

“This terrain is not easy to explain,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

“The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.”

“The landscape is astoundingly amazing. There are a few ancient impact craters on Pluto. But other areas like “Tombaugh Regio” show no craters. The landform change processes are occurring into current geologic times.”

“There are no impact craters in a frozen area north of Pluto’s icy mountains we are now informally calling ‘Sputnik Planum’ after Earth’s first artificial satellite.”

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
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

‘Sputnik Planum’ is composed of a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments. The polygonal shaped areas are roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs based on a quick look at the data.

The mountain ranges height rival those of the Rockies, says Moore.

The new LORRI close-ups show the icy mountain range has 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.”

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

“Judging from the absence of impact craters, it’s clear that Sputnik Planum couldn’t possibly be more than 100 million years old, and possibly is still being shaped to this day by geologic processes,” noted Moore. “This could be only a week old for all we know.”

During the fast flyby encounter, the New Horizons spacecraft pointed its suite of seven science instruments exclusively on all the bodies in the Pluto system, to maximize the capture of scientific data, as quickly as possible, and store it onto its two solid state digital recorders for later playback.

A major challenge for the mission is the rather slow “downlink” transmission of data back to Mission Control on Earth. Since the average “downlink” is only about 2 kilobits per second via its two transmitters, it will take about 16 months to send all the flyby data back to Earth.

Therefore the team has carefully selected just a few of the highest resolution images and other key instrument data for quick playback. The remaining flyby data will be prioritized for streaming.

“Over 50 gigabits of data were collected during the encounter and flyby periods,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, said during the July 17 media briefing.

“So far less than 1 gigabit of data has been returned.”

New Horizons discovered that Pluto is the biggest object in the outer solar system and thus the ‘King of the Kuiper Belt’.

The Kuiper Belt comprises the third and outermost region of worlds in our solar system.

If the spacecraft remains healthy as expected, the science team plans to target New Horizons to fly by another smaller Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) as soon as 2018.

Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015.   New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) - at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) – at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing coverage of the Pluto flyby. He was onsite reporting live on the flyby and media briefings for Universe Today from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md.

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

Ken Kremer

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

A History of Curious Artifacts Sent Into Space

Since the dawn of the Space Age in 1957, thousands of artifacts and memorabilia have been flown into space. Some have been hoisted on brief suborbital flights, while others have been flung out of the solar system, never to return. And of course, it’s become a fashionable — and highly commercialized — trend as of late to briefly loft products, stuffed animals, etc via balloon towards the tenuous boundary of space. Fly a souvenir or artifact into orbit, and it goes from mundane to priceless. But a few may also serve as a final testament to the our ephemeral existence as a species long after our passing.

Here’s a look at some of the most memorable objects sent into space:

The Florida State Quarter dispatched with New Horizons. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Rodgers, JHU/APL.
The Florida State Quarter dispatched with New Horizons. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Rodgers, JHU/APL.

New Horizons Memorabilia

Launched on January 19th, 2006, New Horizons is headed towards a historic encounter with Pluto and its moons next year. From there, New Horizons will survey any Kuiper Belt objects of opportunity along its path and then head out of the solar system, becoming the fifth spacecraft to do so. In addition to a suite of scientific instruments, New Horizons also carries the ashes of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, a Florida & Maryland state quarter, a piece of Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne, and an American flag. These will doubtless confuse any extraterrestrial salvagers!

The Humanoids Where Here: the plaque affixed the the Pioneer 10 & 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL.
The Humanoids Where Here: the plaque affixed the the Pioneer 10 & 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL.

The Pioneer Plaques

The first spacecraft sent on escape trajectories out of our solar system, the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft each carry a plaque which serves as a sort of postcard “greeting” to any future interceptors. The plaque depicts a diagram of the solar system, a map of our location in the galaxy using the positions of known pulsars, and a nude man & woman, which actually generated lots of controversy.  Scientist James Van Allen tells of deliberately placing a fingerprint on the Pioneer 10 plaque in his biography The First Eight Billion Miles.

Earth's Greatest Hits: the Golden Record attached to the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL.
Earth’s Greatest Hits: the Golden Record attached to the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL.

The Voyager 1 and 2 Golden Records

Conceived and designed in part by Carl Sagan, these records contain images and sounds of the Earth that’ll most likely outlive humanity. The records carry greetings in 55 languages, music ranging from Mozart to Chuck Berry, 116 images and more, along with instructions and a stylus for playback.  The record is also enclosed in an aluminum cover electroplated with Uranium-238, which an alien civilization could use to date its manufacture via half-life decay.

A closeup of the "Mars Penny." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
A closeup of the “Mars Penny.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Mars Curiosity Penny

Strange but true: The Mars rover Curiosity carries a 1909 U.S. Penny for a backup camera calibration target.  The penny itself is embedded just below the primary color calibration targets used by Curiosity’s MArs Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Rare enough on Earth, the 1909 Lincoln “Mars penny” will be priceless to future collectors!

Jupiter-bound figurines from left: Jupiter, Juno, & Galileo. Credit: NASA.
Jupiter-bound figurines from left: Jupiter, Juno, & Galileo. Credit: NASA.

Juno’s LEGO Figurines

Mini-figurines of Galileo and the Roman deities Jupiter and Juno were launched in 2011 aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft en route to Jupiter . LEGO has flown products aboard the U.S. Space Shuttles and to the International Space Station previously, but Juno’s cargo represents the “most distant LEGO launch” ever. The figurines will burn up in Jupiter’s atmosphere along with the spacecraft at the end of the mission in October 2017.

An Apollo 15 postal cover flown to the Moon. Credit: NASA.
An Apollo 15 postal cover flown to the Moon. Credit: NASA.

Apollo 15 Postal Covers Fiasco

Apollo 15 astronauts got in some hot water over a publicity scheme. The idea that stamp collector and dealer Hermann Sieger approached the astronauts with was simple: 400 commemorative postage stamp covers would be postmarked at point of departure from the Kennedy Space Center and again at the return point of arrival aboard the USS Okinawa after their circuitous journey via the Moon. NASA was less than happy with the whole affair, and Command Module Pilot Al Worden recounts the aftermath in his book, Falling to Earth.

A Marsbound DVD... Courtesy of Lockheed Martin/LSP.
A Marsbound DVD… Courtesy of Lockheed Martin/LSP.

Haiku for MAVEN

Last year’s MAVEN mission to Mars also carried haiku submitted by space fans.  Over 12,530 valid entries were submitted and over 1,100 haiku received the necessary minimum of two votes to be included on a DVD disk affixed to the spacecraft. MAVEN reaches orbit around Mars in October 2014.

The copy of the Soviet pennant aboard Luna 2on display at the Kansas Cosmoshpere. Credit: Patrick Pelletier under a Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The copy of the Soviet pennant aboard Luna 2 on display at the Kansas Cosmoshpere. Credit: Patrick Pelletier under a Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Luna 2: A Russian Pennant on Moon

On September 12th, 1959, the Soviet Union’s Luna 2 spacecraft became the first man-made object to impact the Moon. Luna 2 carried two spherical “pennants” composed of pentagon-shaped elements engraved with the USSR Coat of Arms and Cyrillic letters translating into “CCCP/USSR September 1959.” An identical pennant is now on display in the Kansas Cosmosphere.

EchoStar XVI in its clean room. Credit: Space Systems Loral.
EchoStar XVI in its clean room. Credit: Space Systems Loral.

A GeoSat Time Capsule Aboard EchoStar XVI

A disk entitled Last Pictures similar to the Voyager records was placed on a satellite headed to geosynchronous orbit in 2012. Launched aboard EchoStar XVI, Last Pictures is an ultra-archival disk containing 100 snapshots of modern life along with interviews with several 21st century artists and scientists.  Geosynchronous satellites aren’t subject to atmospheric drag,  and may be the last testament to the existence of humanity on Earth millions of years hence.

An artist's conception of NASA's Lunar Prospector mission leaving Earth orbit. Credit: NASA.
An artist’s conception of NASA’s Lunar Prospector mission leaving Earth orbit. Credit: NASA.

Lunar Prospector Carries An Astro-Geologist’s Ashes to the Moon

Though he never made the selection to become an astronaut, scientist Eugene Shoemaker did make a posthumous trip to the Moon.  The Lunar Prospector spacecraft departed Earth with Shoemaker’s ashes on January 7th, 1998 in a capsule wrapped in brass foil. Lunar Prospector impacted the south pole of the Moon on July 31st, 1999.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule on approach to the ISS during the COTS 2 mission. Credit: NASA.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule on approach to the ISS during the COTS 2 mission. Credit: NASA.

SpaceX Takes Star Trek Actor to Space

The ashes actor James Doohan (AKA Scotty) were launched aboard a 2012 SpaceX flight to the International Space Station. The COTS Demo Flight, or COTS 2, was the first commercial spacecraft to berth at the ISS. SpaceX had flown a small amount of Doohan’s ashes on the 2008 unsuccessful test launch of the Falcon 1 rocket.

The "Top Secret Payload" of  Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX.
The “Top Secret Payload” of the Dragon capsule revealed. Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX.

Cheese Wheel Makes a Suborbital Journey

All eyes were also on SpaceX during their December 8th 2010 maiden flight of the Dragon space capsule. And the hinted mystery cargo? None other than a wheel of cheese, a nod by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to a classic Monty Python sketch.

The Apollo 12 “Moon Museum”

Did it really go into space? One of the legends surrounding the Apollo program is the existence of what’s been dubbed the “Moon Museum.”  This was a postage stamp-sized “gallery” of art which included a sketch by Andy Warhol and other 1960s artists that was supposedly attached to descent stage of Apollo 12 and left on the Moon.  It will be up to future lunar visitors to confirm or deny its existence!

…And lastly, I give you the “Space Hubcap”

Was the first man-made object propelled into space actually a 1 ton armor plate? On August 27th, 1957 — just two months prior to Sputnik 1 — the Pascal-B underground nuclear test was conducted in southern Nevada.  During the explosion, a steel plate cap was blasted off of a test shaft. The plate could be seen in the initial high-speed video frames, and it was estimated to have reached a speed six times the sufficient escape velocity to depart Earth. To this day, no one knows if this strange artifact of early Space Age folklore still roams the void of space, or simply vaporized due to atmospheric compression at “launch”.