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NASA puts Pluto's geology on the map


Exciting data continue to flood in from the New Horizons' mission as scientists grapple with how to make sense of the unexpectedly complex geology of the dwarf planet. Bill Condie reports.


The new geological map covers the left side of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature. – NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

NASA scientists continue to analyse the treasure trove of data sent back by the New Horizons spacecraft after its brief, but highly productive, fly-by of Pluto late last year.

One of the biggest surprises has been the geological complexity of the dwarf planet and NASA’s finest brains have been grappling with how best to make sense of it.

Mission scientists have come up with this map to help understand the diversity of terrain and to piece together how Pluto’s surface has formed and evolved.

This map only covers a small portion of Pluto’s surface that measures 2,070 kilometres from top to bottom, but it includes the vast nitrogen-ice plain informally named Sputnik Planum and surrounding terrain.

Pluto’s Sputnik Planum region is mapped, with the key indicating a wide variety of terrains. – NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The map is overlaid with colours that represent different geological terrains, each defined by its texture and morphology – smooth, pitted, craggy, hummocky or ridged, for example.

The black lines at the centre of the map represent troughs that mark the boundaries of cellular regions in the nitrogen ice.

The purple unit represents the chaotic, blocky mountain ranges that line Sputnik’s western border, and pink, the scattered, floating hills at its eastern edge.

Wright Mons, the possible cryovolcanic feature – a volcano that erupts water, ammonia or methane instead of molten rock – is mapped in red in the southern corner.

The rugged highlands, informally named Cthulhu Regio, are mapped in dark brown along the western edge, pockmarked by many large impact craters.

The base map for this geologic map is a mosaic of 12 images obtained by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at a resolution of 390 metres per pixel. The images were obtained at a range of about 77,300 kilometres during New Horizons' fly-by on 14 July 2015.

Bill condie 2014.png?ixlib=rails 2.1
Bill is head of publishing at The Royal Institution of Australia and former publisher of Cosmos.
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