16 July 2015 News

Geologically active Pluto and Charon: Young mountains between Tombaugh Regio and Cthulhu Regio, ‘Mordor’ at Charon’s North Pole

As it is often the case, a closer study of a faraway object has resulted in amazing surprises – and many more questions than answers.

There are plenty of new things we already know after beginning to analyze the data from New Horizons’ historic flyby of dwarf planet Pluto.

One is particularly startling. Pluto appears to be geologically active.

A detailed close-up shows an icy mountain range and resurfacing planes between what is now known as Tombaugh Regio (which is Pluto’s famous heart-shaped region, named after Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh) and Cthulhu Regio (because why not name a Pluto region after H.P. Lovecraft’s terrifying elder god? We’re guessing that in the future, nobody will be rushing to lead a manned mission to explore that particular part of Pluto – but hey, that’s just us).

Conspicuously absent are impact craters. This very likely means geological activity – processes by which Pluto’s surface has been reshaped over time.

The best part is, we have no idea why comparatively tiny, icy Pluto could be active.

Until now, the only geologically active small icy bodies we’ve encountered were orbiting gas giants, where gravitational pull on them potentially kept them active.

Theories have already been proposed, but so far, one thing is for certain – geological activity on Pluto has upended our understanding of processes that take place in the solar system.

Scientists are also pointing out that Pluto must have a nitrogen supply deep inside. For all we know, it could even have cryo-volcanoes.

In a nutshell, Pluto is unlike any other known object in our solar system.

And that’s beside its largest moon, Charon, which has a creepily darkened area on its North Pole (already informally referred to as Mordor – because, once again, why not?), not to mention signs of vast geological activity.

There is still much to process following New Horizons’ data, so even though our one-shot flyby is over, we are staying tuned.

Popular articles

Popular articles

The semi-reusable Space Shuttle operated from 1981 to 2011. The crew was carried in the Orbiter vehicle, which returned to Earth like an aeroplane and was re-flown. The large External Tank was expendable, as were the two Solid Rocket Boosters. Astronautics

Spaceflight revolution on a shoestring

The goal of ESA’s SOLARIS Specials

The promise of solar energy for sustainable development and space exploration