(“Screaming Pluto Flyby” would be a good name for a band, no?)
In what must be a record short time, the New Horizons team has published some results from the July flyby of Pluto. If you think that was easy, you try processing, analyzing, and writing up data in just a couple of months. Bear in mind that it took days and weeks just to download the data to Earth from that far away. In fact, data from the July flyby is still downloading, the article is based on what has been received so far.
The instrument suite on the New Horizon’s includes several imagers in IR, visible, and UV bands, as well as radio and particle measurements. These instruments provide the most detailed view of Pluto and its moons ever, from as close as 14,000 KM, with a resolution of better that 2.5KM / pixel. (Coarse by Earth standards, but zillions of times better than any previous observations.)
The imagery reveals craters and mountains as high as 2KM. The latter features could not be methane ice or similar material, so the researchers deduce that they must be rock covered with snow.
There is also a large flat, christened “Sputnik Planum”, which shows no craters (implying it is geologically young). This area has many obscure features visible in the imagery, but is certainly a frozen plain, possibly flowing like Earth glaciers, covered with snow and ices,
Examination of the craters in light of other evidence of bombardment in the Kuiper Belt suggests that Pluto was geophysically active in the last 100 million years (i.e., processes erased craters).
The color imagery shows some unearthly colors that are attributed to the presence of Tholins, which are exotic low temperature slushies of Methane and Nitrogen that form under energetic bombardment.
New Horizons also imaged Charon, the larges moon of Pluto. Charon is a rugged and divers rocky surface, some areas cratered and others showing huge fracture zones. Based on models of crater accumulation, there are regions of quite different geological age on Charon’s surface. Other evidence is (possibly literally) hazy, suggesting the possibility of complex heating, cooling, and transport of volatile compounds, as well as photochemical reactions (akin to the development of Thorins).
The spacecraft also imaged the smaller moons of Pluto (Nix and Hydra) and looked for but did not detect other moons or rings.
Overall, the evidence indicates that Pluto has a complex and active geophysical history. If so, the big question is “where does the energy come from?”
The calibrated data from New Horizons will be available from the Planetary Data System starting next year. Unlike Hollywood, it takes a lot of work and time to organize the beeps and buzzes from the spacecraft into useable datasets. In t he meantime, visit the PDS and check out the decades worth of totally public data already available to you!
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