Thanks to NASA’s New Horizons historic flyby of Pluto, we now know the dwarf planet has giant, icy mountains, comparable to the Rocky mountains here on Earth.
And on Friday NASA released this incredible footage of the spacecraft flying over Pluto’s mountain chain:
Scientists have named the mountain chain “Norgay Montes” after Tenzing Norgay — one of the first two humans to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Scientists think the mountains are made of water ice, but they still aren’t sure what’s causing them to form. Either way it’s clear that some kind of mountain-forming tectonic process has been happening near Pluto’s surface.
The rest of the small planet’s geology isn’t easy to explain either. There’s a frozen plain on the face of Pluto that scientists have named “Sputnik Planum” (named after the world’s first satellite). Here’s a picture of it taken from about 48,000 miles away:
“The first time I saw this image, I decided to call it ‘not easy to explain’ terrain,” Jeffrey Moore, New Horizons co-investigator, said during a July 17 press briefing on the new data.
With only a small percentage of the data from New Horizons, the team can only guess as to what might be causing the strange features in the image.
For starters, the patch of land is so smooth that the New Horizons team says it can’t be more than 100 million years old. These features could be “a week old for all we know,” Moore said.
He thinks the pitted surfaces could be coming from some kind of sublimation happening on Pluto’s surface — solids making up the ground are turn directly into gas.
The irregular-shaped segments might be caused by contraction of the planet’s surface — sort of like what happens when mud dries. Or they could be caused by convection starting in Pluto’s warmer core and bubbling up to its carbon monoxide, methane, and nitrogen surface layer.
The dark streaks are trickier to explain, but since they are all aligned in the same direction, the team speculates they might be caused by wind — similar to wind streaks we see here on Earth.
It’s just a happy coincidence that New Horizons flew past such an interesting part of Pluto during its closest approach, Moore said.
“Twenty years from now, people are going to think we planned it out,” Moore said.
Scientists have not spotted winds or geysers, but they will be searching for those features in future data. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is more than two million miles past Pluto now, but we’re still waiting for the spacecraft to transmit all the data back to Earth.
You can watch the full fly over video below:
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