As promised NASA has today revealed more new data from the New Horizons spacecraft, providing a new close-up image of Pluto that reveals a vast, crater less plain that they said is no more than 100 million years old, and is likely to be still being shaped by geologic processes.
NASA has informally named this areas “Sputnik Planum” (Sputnik Plain) after the first artificial satellite that was launched from Earth.
The area of the photo is just north of Pluto’s icy mountains, which were pictured in NASA’s last release.
“This terrain is not easy to explain,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.”
NASA also noted that the pictured surface has a number of irregularly shaped segments which are about 12 miles across and are bordered by what they say might be shallow troughs.
There’s currently two working theories as to how these segments were formed, here’s NASA’s explanation of both.
The irregular shapes may be the result of the contraction of surface materials, similar to what happens when mud dries. Alternatively, they may be a product of convection, similar to wax rising in a lava lamp. On Pluto, convection would occur within a surface layer of frozen carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen, driven by the scant warmth of Pluto’s interior.
NASA also revealed that they found evidence of carbon monoxide ice within the recently named Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region). This data was captured on July 14th and transmitted back to earth on July 16th.
Later in the day NASA also revealed that Pluto’s atmosphere has an extended reach of as far as 1,000 miles outward into space, which is more than 100 times farther than the Earth’s atmosphere, which ends at about 75 miles above Earth’s surface.
This new data was captured by New Horizon’s Alice imaging spectrograph to gather information about the atmosphere about an hour after its flyby.
Previously NASA has only been able to record Pluto’s atmosphere at 170 miles into space.
NASA also says that at the highest altitudes the Pluto atmosphere is composed mostly of molecular nitrogen. Closer to the Pluto, methane mixes in with the nitrogen, followed by hydrocarbons at the lowest altitudes.
NASA says that about 500 tons of material per hour is escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.
And they also released a new photo of Pluto and Charon side by side, which was captured during approach on July 13 and July 14, 2015.
New Horizons is 2 million miles past Pluto now, but has only sent between 1 and 2 percent of its data, we should have about 5 percent of the spacecraft’s data by next week, and we’ll get the full 100 percent over the next 16 months.