NASA's New Horizon mission reveals how weird and unique Pluto really is
Pluto may not technically be a planet, but it's chock full of extremely creative place-names like Balrog and Cthulhu, and it also has geological features seen nowhere else in our outer solar system.
WASHINGTON — Pluto, the small, icy celestial body at the back of the solar system, was downgraded from a regular planet to a dwarf planet in 2006. It has been known as just that for years — the planet that never was. But NASA’s New Horizons mission, launched in the same year that Pluto was ripped of its planetary title, performed the first flyby study of Pluto and revealed that the dwarf planet’s surface is surprisingly complex and unique.
Pluto’s surface differs from place to place. Areas are dominated by ice made from methane in some places, and nitrogen, carbon monoxide or water in others. The variation on its surface is unique “in the entirety of our outer solar system,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told NBC News.
A heart-shaped region on Pluto known informally as Tombaugh Regio is made up of ice containing mostly nitrogen. Within the “heart,” there’s a frozen plain scientists dubbed “Sputnik Planum,” a smooth, icy terrain made up of polygon-shaped hills divided by troughs.
The flat landscape of the plains are interrupted by the towering peaks of two of Pluto’s ice volcanoes — the 2.5-mile-high Wright Mons and the nearby Piccard Mons. These volcanoes, and the fact that parts of Pluto’s surface contain many craters, suggest that the surface was once geologically active.
Pluto also has an elongated, dark region along its equator called the Cthulhu Regio. It’s dark because the surface is covered by tholins, which is the byproduct of atmospheric nitrogen and methane interacting with ultraviolet light.
These observations and many others made during the New Horizons mission were published online Thursday in the journal Science, shedding new light on the remote dwarf planet.
Within Pluto's "heart," there's a frozen plain scientists dubbed "Sputnik Planum," a smooth, icy terrain made up of polygon-shaped hills divided by troughs. NASA
The 2.5-mile-high Wright Mons (if it's in fact a volcano as scientists suspect it is) is the largest volcano discovered in the outer solar system. NASA
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