Astronomers Have Already Made Shocking Discoveries About Pluto
Really, that was not supposed to happen.
BY TINA NGUYEN
On Wednesday afternoon, NASA released a hi-res photo of a tiny fraction of Pluto, taken by the New Horizons probe, that made everyone re-evaluate their understanding of the universe: Pluto has mountains—big ones, the size of the Rockies—and in the absence of a large planetary body whose tidal force could pull on its surface and create the mountains that way, Pluto must be making the mountains on its own.
The term for such a phenomenon is “geologically active,” meaning that the planet generates enough internal heat to change its own surface (like the Earth does, as per eighth-grade geology class). But according to NASA scientists, they were definitely not expecting to find mountains made of ice—oh yeah, there's probably water, too—on the distant dwarf planet, which prior to the New Horizons discovery, seemed way too small to retain the kind of heat needed to create mountains.
As for the ice, well, Pluto's billions of miles away from the sun—it gets rather cold out there. But the frigid atmosphere, combined with the internal heat of Pluto, could result in "dramatic geysers blasting plumes of ice into the atmosphere or cryo-volcanoes that erupt in explosions of ice rather than molten rock," according to The Guardian.
“There is no giant body that can be deforming Pluto on an ongoing regular basis to heat the interior,” said principal investigator Alan Stern. “So this is telling us you don’t need tidal heating to power [to produce ice mountains]. This is a really big discovery that we’ve just made.”
Further evidence to Pluto being a geologically active world comes in the mind-blowing observation that there are no craters, suggesting both that the planet’s geological activity is moving the surface enough to “pave” over any craters, and that Pluto is young—no more than 100 million years old, which is nothing in the cosmic sense of things. (To put that in perspective: Earth still had dinosaurs before Pluto existed.)
NASA also discovered features on Pluto’s moon, Charon, that indicate geological activity, such as a 600-mile stretch of cliffs and canyons.
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, noted that Wednesday’s discovery was only the first piece of information from a data trove that will take 16 months to download. “Today, we get the first sampling of the scientific treasure collected during those critical moments,” he said, adding: “I can tell you it dramatically surpasses those high expectations.”