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Pluto’s System has Ice Mountains, Potato Moons, and a Space Mordor

After a decade-long, 3-billion-mile journey to Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has reached a new stage in its mission: sending 10-years of data, and with it, discovery, back to Earth. It’s been an exciting couple of days, so we’ve rounded up the latest news for you. But we guarantee this is just the beginning…

Pluto over the years.


One of the first images returned to Earth shows a small portion of Pluto’s surface seen from 47,800 miles away. Ice mountains tower an impressive 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the smooth surface. The lack of craters indicates that the peaks are likely no more than 100 million years old which, when put in context of the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system, makes them newborn.“And they might still be growing,” says NASA Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team leader Jeff Moore.

Because Pluto’s surface would have been pummeled by space debris for billions of years, the only logical explanation for the lack of impact craters is recent geological activity. Think of it like a facelift for the planet (ok, ok, fine, “dwarf planet”); the rising of the ice would have virtually erased any pockmarks on the surface. If the theory is correct, then we’re looking at “one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” explains Moore.

pluto methane-0715-2015


New Horizons did more than just take photos of Pluto during the flyby, it also took surface and atmospheric measurements to help us better understand what the celestial celebrity is made of. Pluto is composed largely of methane and nitrogen ice – that we already suspected – but new imagery shows that the concentration of these elements varies greatly from place to place.

“We just learned that in the north polar cap, methane ice is diluted in a thick, transparent slab of nitrogen ice resulting in strong absorption of infrared light,” explains New Horizons co-investigator Will Grundy.  “In the dark equatorial patches, the methane ice has shallower infrared absorptions indicative of a very different texture.”

What’s interesting is that neither methane nor nitrogen ice is strong enough to build the mountains we saw in the image above. Instead, a stiffer material, like water-ice, created the peaks. At Pluto’s sub-zero temperature, water-ice behaves more like rock.

pluto potato-07142015


Yes, dear Pluto is being orbited by a space potato (cough, cough, Spudnik, cough). Since its discovery in 2005, Pluto’s moon Hydra has been known only as a fuzzy dot of uncertain shape, and size. The image above was taken 400,000 miles from Hydra’s surface – and it might not look like much – but using the resolution (2 miles, or 3 kilometers per pixel), NASA now can see that the tiny potato-shaped moon measures 27 miles (43 kilometers) by 20 miles (33 kilometers) across.

“[We’ve] finally nailed the basic physical properties,” says New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver. “and we’re going to see Hydra even better in the images yet to come.” Squee.

Pluto charon-07152015


A new image of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon shows a dark patch, informally called Mordor, at its north pole. We still don’t know what exactly is causing Mordor’s darkness (though we’re hoping it’s an army of Ice Giant/Orc fusion creatures), but later high-res imagery should shed some light on the mystery.

If you look to the right, you might notice the moon’s massive Canyon. at 4-6 miles deep, the chasm is a whopping 5 times as deep as the Grand Canyon (and just about as deep as the Mariana Trench).

And this is just everything we learned on day one.



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