New Horizons’ latest snaps show Pluto and Charon are geological treasure troves

13 Jul 2015

Artist's conception of New Horizons via Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Tomorrow (14 July) marks the day when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reveals the best look at Pluto we’re ever likely to see for decades to come but, just 1m miles from its destination, we’ve already gained incredible insight into the dwarf planet’s mysteries.

NASA are reporting that it’s all systems go for New Horizons, with NASA’s team on the ground, and many other space enthusiasts, eager to see what is actually on the surface of the most distant large body in our solar system.

Now just 1m miles (1.6m km) away from Pluto, the craft has already revealed some interesting features on its surface that we will be able to see in greater detail on its flyby, including deep chasms, numerous craters and a ‘heart’ on its surface.

The heart-shaped feature on Pluto’s surface offers one of the biggest mysteries for NASA to discover more about, which it will do during its closest flyby.

Annotated image of Pluto

Annotated image of Pluto via NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Not only have we begun to see more details of Pluto, but New Horizons has also cast its instruments towards Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, which shows similar geological structures on its surface, including impact craters, potential chasms and a darkened region at its north pole.

This view of Charon, NASA said, has arguably been the biggest surprise on its recent approach that changed Charon’s expected surface from an icy featureless planet to a geological treasure trove.

The biggest crater discovered on its surface is believed to be nearly 100km across in diameter and is believed to be a relatively recent collision from an object originating from the Kuiper Belt in the last billion years.

Annotated image of Charon

Annotated image of Charon via NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The moon’s dark pole is believed to have a diameter of around 321km and still offers the greatest mysteries for NASA’s scientists but, again, this could be answered by tomorrow’s flyby.

In terms of how difficult an operation this is for NASA and New Horizons, it is comparable to trying to take a photo of a passing car with precision, given that the craft is officially the fastest man-made craft ever launched into space travelling at speeds of 49,600km/h.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic