|July 17, 2015
In the latest data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, a new close-up image of Pluto reveals a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains, in the center-left of the heart feature, informally named “Tombaugh Regio” (Tombaugh Region) after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.
“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.”
This fascinating icy plains region — resembling frozen mud cracks on Earth — has been informally named “Sputnik Planum” (Sputnik Plain) after the Earth’s first artificial satellite. It has a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments, roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs. Some of these troughs have darker material within them, while others are traced by clumps of hills that appear to rise above the surrounding terrain. Elsewhere, the surface appears to be etched by fields of small pits that may have formed by a process called sublimation, in which ice turns directly from solid to gas, just as dry ice does on Earth.
Scientists have two working theories as to how these segments were formed. The irregular shapes may be the result of the contraction of surface materials, similar to what happens when mud dries. Alternatively, they may be a product of convection, similar to wax rising in a lava lamp. On Pluto, convection would occur within a surface layer of frozen carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen, driven by the scant warmth of Pluto’s interior.
Pluto’s icy plains also display dark streaks that are a few miles long. These streaks appear to be aligned in the same direction and may have been produced by winds blowing across the frozen surface.
The Tuesday “heart of the heart” image was taken when New Horizons was 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) from Pluto, and shows features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across. Mission scientists will learn more about these mysterious terrains from higher-resolution and stereo images that New Horizons will pull from its digital recorders and send back to Earth during the next year.
The New Horizons Atmospheres team observed Pluto’s atmosphere as far as 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) above the surface, demonstrating that Pluto’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere is quite extended. This is the first observation of Pluto’s atmosphere at altitudes higher than 170 miles above the surface (270 kilometers).
The New Horizons Particles and Plasma team has discovered a region of cold, dense ionized gas tens of thousands of miles beyond Pluto — the planet’s atmosphere being stripped away by the solar wind and lost to space.
“This is just a first tantalizing look at Pluto’s plasma environment,” said New Horizons co-investigator Fran Bagenal, University of Colorado, Boulder.
“With the flyby in the rearview mirror, a decade-long journey to Pluto is over –but, the science payoff is only beginning,” said Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Data from New Horizons will continue to fuel discovery for years to come.”
Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado, added, “We’ve only scratched the surface of our Pluto exploration, but it already seems clear to me that in the initial reconnaissance of the solar system, the best was saved for last.”
New Horizons is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the mission, science team, payload operations and encounter science planning.
For more information on the New Horizons mission, including fact sheets, schedules, video and new images, visit http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons and http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/plutotoolkit.cfm
A new color map of dwarf planet Ceres, which NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting since March, reveals the diversity of the surface of this planetary body. Differences in morphology and color across the surface suggest Ceres was once an active body, Dawn researchers said today at the 2015 General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna.
“This dwarf planet was not just an inert rock throughout its history. It was active, with processes that resulted in different materials in different regions. We are beginning to capture that diversity in our color images,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Dawn mission made history on March 6 as the first spacecraft to reach a dwarf planet, and the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial targets. Previously, Dawn studied giant asteroid Vesta from 2011 to 2012, uncovering numerous insights about its geology and history. While Vesta is a dry body, Ceres is believed to be 25 percent water ice by mass. By comparing Vesta and Ceres, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of the formation of the solar system.
Ceres’ surface is heavily cratered, as expected, but appears to have fewer large craters than scientists anticipated. It also has a pair of very bright neighboring spots in its northern hemisphere. More detail will emerge after the spacecraft begins its first intensive science phase on April 23, from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) from the surface, said Martin Hoffmann, investigator on the Dawn framing camera team, based at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany.
The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR), an imaging spectrometer that examines Ceres in visible and infrared light, has been examining the relative temperatures of features on Ceres’ surface. Preliminary examination suggests that different bright regions on Ceres’ surface behave differently, said Federico Tosi, investigator from the VIR instrument team at the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology, and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, Rome.
Based on observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, planetary scientists have identified 10 bright regions on Ceres’ surface. One pair of bright spots, by far the brightest visible marks on Ceres, appears to be located in a region that is similar in temperature to its surroundings. But a different bright feature corresponds to a region that is cooler than the rest of Ceres’ surface.
The origins of Ceres’ bright spots, which have captivated the attention of scientists and the public alike, remain unknown. It appears the brightest pair is located in a crater 57 miles (92 kilometers) wide. As Dawn gets closer to the surface of Ceres, better-resolution images will become available.
“The bright spots continue to fascinate the science team, but we will have to wait until we get closer and are able to resolve them before we can determine their source,” Russell said.
Both Vesta and Ceres are located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The Dawn spacecraft will continue studying Ceres through June 2016.
Dawn’s mission is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. For a complete list of mission participants, visit:
For more information about Dawn, visit: