Tuesday 6 December 2016

New detailed Pluto photographs reveal ‘young’ mountain range

Tim Moynihan and Scott D’Arcy

Published 16/07/2015 | 02:30

New pictures from the Nasa spacecraft New Horizons on its successful flypast of Pluto have revealed a major surprise – a range of mountains rising as high as 3,353m above the surface of the icy planet.

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The mountains are from no more than 100 million years ago – mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system – and may still be in the process of building, said Jeff Moore, of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI).

That suggests the region they are in, which covers less than 1pc of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.

Nasa experts base the youthful age estimate on the lack of craters there. As with the rest of Pluto, this region is thought to have been hit by space debris for billions of years and would have once been heavily cratered – unless recent activity had given the region a facelift, erasing those pockmarks.

Mr Moore said: “This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system.”

Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.

A new close-up image of a region near Plutos equator reveals a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. Photo: Reuters
A new close-up image of a region near Plutos equator reveals a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. Photo: Reuters
New details of Plutos largest moon Charon are revealed in this image from New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). Photo: Reuters
Mission team members hold a print of a US stamp with their suggested update since the New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto (Nasa/AP)
Pluto is captured in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft

“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” said GGI deputy team leader John Spencer. The mountains are thought to be composed of the planet’s water-ice “bedrock”.

Images from New Horizons also give remarkable new details of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. There is a canyon estimated to be 6km-9km deep, plus a range of cliffs and troughs stretching about 950km from left to right.

Again, there is a lack of craters, suggesting a relatively young surface that has been reshaped by geologic activity.

Cathy Olkin, of the New Horizons team, told a news conference at mission control in Baltimore, Maryland: “Charon just blew our socks off when we had the new image today. We’ve been thrilled all morning, the team has been abuzz – ‘Look at this, look at that’.”

She said that in the north of Charon there was a darkish area and scientists were referring to it informally as Mordor – presumably a reference to the region in JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

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