New Horizons scientists have made this video which offers a “trip” to Pluto aboard the NASA spacecraft. It starts with a distant spacecraft’s view of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon – closing the distance day by day – with a dramatic “landing” on the shoreline of Pluto’s informally named Sputnik Planum.
After a 9.5-year voyage covering more than 4.8 billion kilometres, New Horizons flew through the Pluto system on 14 July 2015, coming within 12,500 kilometres of Pluto. Carrying powerful telescopic cameras that could spot features smaller than a football field, New Horizons has sent back hundreds of images of Pluto and its moons.
Top ten discoveries about Pluto
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, lists the mission’s most surprising and amazing findings from Pluto.
This is his list (so far):
- The complexity of Pluto and its satellites is far beyond what we expected.
- The degree of current activity on Pluto’s surface and the youth of some surfaces on Pluto are simply astounding.
- Pluto’s atmospheric hazes and lower-than-predicted atmospheric escape rate upended all of the pre-flyby models.
- Charon’s enormous equatorial extensional tectonic belt hints at the freezing of a former water ice ocean inside Charon in the distant past. Other evidence found by New Horizons indicates Pluto could well have an internal water-ice ocean today.
- All of Pluto’s moons that can be age-dated by surface craters have the same, ancient age – adding weight to the theory that they were formed together in a single collision between Pluto and another planet in the Kuiper Belt long ago.
- Charon’s dark, red polar cap is unprecedented in the solar system and may be the result of atmospheric gases that escaped Pluto and then accreted on Charon’s surface.
- Pluto’s vast 1,000-kilometre-wide heart-shaped nitrogen glacier (informally called Sputnik Planum) that New Horizons discovered is the largest known glacier in the solar system.
- Pluto shows evidence of vast changes in atmospheric pressure and, possibly, past presence of running or standing liquid volatiles on its surface – something only seen elsewhere on Earth, Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan in our solar system.
- The lack of additional Pluto satellites beyond what was discovered before New Horizons was unexpected.
- Pluto’s atmosphere is blue. Who knew?