New Horizons team reveals fascinating, mysterious Pluto findings in first science paper

The mission team revealed a degree of diversity and complexity in the Pluto system – from the planet's unusual heart-shaped region to its extended atmosphere and intriguing moons.

Updated: Oct 16, 2015, 09:56 AM IST
New Horizons team reveals fascinating, mysterious Pluto findings in first science paper
Photo credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Washington: Scientists behind New Horizons mission revealed a wide range of findings about the Pluto system in its first science paper, released Thursday.

Publishing their first overview in a paper titled “The Pluto System: Initial Results from its Exploration by New Horizons”, the mission team revealed a degree of diversity and complexity in the Pluto system – from the planet's unusual heart-shaped region to its extended atmosphere and intriguing moons.

“The New Horizons mission completes our initial reconnaissance of the solar system, giving humanity our first look at this fascinating world and its system of moons,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“New Horizons is not only writing the textbook on the Pluto system, it’s serving to inspire current and future generations to keep exploring—to keep searching for what’s beyond the next hill.”

The research paper, led by mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, appears as the cover story in the October 16 issue of Science, just three months after NASA’s historic first exploration of the Pluto system in July.

The Pluto system surprised us in many ways, most notably teaching us that small planets can remain active billions of years after their formation,” said Stern.

“We were also taught important lessons by the degree of geological complexity that both Pluto and its large moon Charon display.”

The research suggests that other large worlds in the Kuiper belt - such as Eris, Makemake, and Haumea - could also have similarly complex histories that rival those of terrestrial planets such as Mars and Earth.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reached a distance of 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) from Pluto’s surface during its historic July 14 closest approach, gathering so much data it will take almost another year to return to Earth.

The data returned so far show a surprisingly wide variety of landforms and terrain ages on Pluto, as well as variations in color, composition and albedo (surface reflectivity).

Recently, New Horizons delivered some stunning color images of Pluto's atmospheric hazes revealing that the hazes are blue.

The spacecraft also detected numerous small, exposed regions of water ice on Pluto.