First New Horizons Pluto paper shows recent geological activity

16 Oct 2015

High-resolution image of Pluto. Image via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The first scientific paper on the findings of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft following its Pluto mission has been released, with some surprising discoveries and new lessons on the farthest reaches of our solar system.

Having made its closest flyby of Pluto from a distance of 12,500km on 14 July, the data from the New Horizons spacecraft has now been compiled into a single research paper in Science detailing what until a few months ago had only been speculation by Earth’s scientists.

Among the findings in the research paper, the returned data returned revealed a huge variety of different landforms and terrain ages on the dwarf planet, as well as variations in colour, composition and its surface reflectivity, or albedo.

Of particular interest to the researchers was the surprise discovery of an abundance of water-ice rich crust and the stunning multiple haze layers seen above the surface of Pluto’s atmosphere.

Pluto was also found to be somewhat larger than had previously been expected, as well as potentially still being geologically active.

‘Pluto surprised us in many ways’

This would go against previous scientific hypotheses that suggested a dwarf planet of the size of Pluto would not be able to support geological activity today, long after it would have formed.

The planet’s ‘heart’, officially dubbed the Sputnik Planum, is where the geological activity is believed to be most active and seemingly free of impact craters, suggesting the existence of tectonic activity beneath the surface.

With these findings, the team have now called into question the potential for similar tectonic or geological activity in other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt, including Eris, Makemake, and Haumea.

Further miscalculations were found with Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, which was also found to have signs of extensive resurfacing due to tectonic activity in what was described as the ‘puzzling dark terrain’ at its northern pole.

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

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic