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Pluto Reveals More Secrets

Pluto Reveals More Secrets

Sputnik Planum, Pluto
Sputnik Planum, Pluto

MOUNTAIN VIEW – Eight months after its encounter with the New Horizons spacecraft, Pluto continues to surprise the scientists who study this distant world.  

Pluto and its largest moon Charon comprise what is essentially a binary planet: two bodies of comparable size orbiting a common center of mass.  The four smaller moons – Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra – are thought to have formed at the same time as Charon in the aftermath of a large impact. 

Most inner moons in the solar system keep one face pointed toward their central planet; this animation shows that certainly isn’t the case with the small moons of Pluto, which behave like spinning tops. Pluto is shown at center with, in order, from smaller to wider orbit: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, Hydra.

“Consequently, we expected the small moons to resemble Charon,” says Mark Showalter, Senior Scientist at the SETI Institute. “Instead, we find that their surfaces are much brighter and much older than that of their large sibling.” 

In addition, scientists are puzzled by the moons’ unusual rotation characteristics, as they orbit rapidly around axes that are tilted sideways.

“The gravitational tides from Pluto should have slowed down and re-oriented the spins of these moons by now, but they haven’t,” noted Showalter.  The New Horizons team speculates that collisions from outside objects might cause the strange rotation of these moons. 

New Horizons has revealed surprisingly complex geology on the surfaces of Pluto and Charon. Pluto sports a bright 1,000 km-wide plain, informally called Sputnik Planum, that is filled with volatile nitrogen and carbon monoxide ices.  This feature shows no craters, which attests to ongoing geological activity. Beyond the smooth plains, there are ancient cratered terrains that display impacts that Pluto has endured over millions and billions of years. The rims and ridges are frosted with ice.

Sputnik Planum, This high-resolution image captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). The bright expanse is the western lobe of the "heart," informally called Sputnik Planum, which has been found to be rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices. Download full size image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

“Among the more puzzling features are the two tall mounds with central depressions that look like volcanoes,” says Ross Beyer, Senior Scientist at the SETI Institute. “Wright Mons is about 2 miles tall and 90 miles wide, and Piccard Mons is even larger, about 3.5 miles tall and 140 miles across. They could be ice volcanoes, but this will take more analysis to establish.”

New Horizons observations have also revolutionized our understanding of Pluto’s atmosphere.

“We were very surprised to observe that Pluto’s atmosphere has a multi-layered bluish haze that extends from the surface to altitudes above 200 km. The upper atmosphere is much colder than expected, which greatly reduces the rate at which it escapes from Pluto. We’ve also measured the surface pressure for the first time – about 11 microbars – and we’ve discovered that the temperature structure of the lower atmosphere varies with location,” says David Hinson, Senior Scientist at the SETI Institute.

Pluto’s partner – Charon – offers its own surprises. Its water-rich icy surface is distinctly red around its northern region; a coloration due to tholin, a molecule produced by ultraviolet irradiation of simpler compounds like methane and ethane. There are patches of ammonia ice evident on Charon as well.

“Unlike Pluto, Charon’s surface is quite old and uniform. It’s covered with water ice with low amounts of ammonia mixed in, and is not as geologically active as Pluto,” says SETI Institute scientist Cristina Dalle Ore

Charon in Enhanced Color NASA's New Horizons captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Charon just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC); the colors are processed to best highlight the variation of surface properties across Charon. Charon’s color palette is not as diverse as Pluto’s; most striking is the reddish north (top) polar region, informally named Mordor Macula. Charon is 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across; this image resolves details as small as 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers). Dowload full size image Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

A March 18 special issue of Science ( articles on the continuing analysis of Pluto and its satellites.  With roughly half of the New Horizons data returned to Earth so far, scientists anticipate more discoveries and a deeper understanding of this dwarf planet system.

Additional Images:

This image, taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, shows five moons orbiting the distant, icy dwarf planet Pluto. Download full size image Credits: NASA, ESA, Mark Showalter (SETI Institute)

Family portrait of small moons of Pluto. This composite image shows a sliver of Pluto’s large moon, Charon, and all four of Pluto’s small moons, as resolved by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on the New Horizons spacecraft. All the moons are displayed with a common intensity stretch and spatial scale (see scale bar). Charon is by far the largest of Pluto’s moons, with a diameter of 751 miles (1,212 kilometres). Nix and Hydra have comparable sizes, approximately 25 miles (40 kilometres) across in their longest dimension above. Kerberos and Styx are much smaller and have comparable sizes, roughly 6-7 miles (10-12 kilometres) across in their longest dimension. All four small moons have highly elongated shapes, a characteristic thought to be typical of small bodies in the Kuiper Belt. Download full size image Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

An overhead view of Wright Mons, one of two potential cryovolcanoes on Pluto. Download full size image Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

About the SETI Institute

Founded in 1984, the SETI Institute is a non-profit, multi-disciplinary research and education organization whose mission is to lead humanity’s quest to understand the origins and prevalence of life and intelligence in the Universe and to share that knowledge with the world. Our research encompasses the physical and biological sciences and leverages expertise in data analytics, machine learning and advanced signal detection technologies. The SETI Institute is a distinguished research partner for industry, academia and government agencies, including NASA and NSF.

Contact information

Media Contact: 
Seth Shostak
SETI Institute 
Tel: +1 650 960-4530

Mark Showalter
SETI Institute 
Tel: +1 650 810-0234

David Hinson
SETI Institute
Tel: +1 650-810-0217

Ross Beyer
SETI Institute/NASA Ames Research Center
Tel +1 650-604-0324

Cristina Dalle Ore
SETI Institute
Tel: +1 650-604-6151

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