New Horizons Discovers Ice Mountains On Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has revealed mountains of ice on Pluto’s surface.

NASA revealed the first detailed image of Pluto’s surface captured by the agency’s New Horizons spacecraft during its close flyby of the dwarf planet. The image shows a region free of impact craters with mountains of ice rising above its surface.

The surface seen in the first high resolution frame of Pluto revealed from New Horizons’ flyby of the dwarf planet shows mountains made of water ice that tower 11,000 feet tall, higher than the average elevation of the Rocky Mountains. In addition, the frame shows a complete lack of impact craters on that region of Pluto, indicating a geologically young surface.

Pluto has presumably been impacted by other objects in the solar system for billions of years, causing craters to appear on its surface. The fact that no craters are visible in this frame of Pluto, which represents less than one percent of the dwarf planet’s surface, indicates that geologic activity may have erased Pluto’s scars.

The first frame of Pluto returned from New Horizons' closest approach to the dwarf planet shows mountains towering 11,000 feet above Pluto's surface. Image Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

The first frame of Pluto returned from New Horizons’ closest approach to the dwarf planet shows mountains towering 11,000 feet above Pluto’s surface. Image Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Informally named Norgay Montes — meaning Norgay Mountains — the mountains likely formed within the last 100 million years and may still be building, making them extremely young in the context of the the solar system, which is 4.6 billion years old. “This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore, member of the New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team.

“Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape,” NASA said in a press release.

Methane and nitrogen ice covers much of the surface of Pluto, but according to the New Horizons team these materials are not strong enough to build mountains, leading the mission scientists to believe the mountains are created from a bedrock of water ice.

“At Pluto’s temperatures, water-ice behaves more like rock,” said Bill McKinnon, deputy lead scientist with New Horizon’s Geology and Geophysics Imaging team.

This close-up image was captured by the New Horizons probe at a distance of 478,000 miles from the surface of Pluto on July 14, approximately 1.5 hours before the spacecraft’s closest approach to the dwarf planet. The image’s resolution can resolve surface features less than one mile wide.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is an artist concept of Pluto’s surface. Image Credit: ESA / Hubble (L. Calçada)

  • FifiVal

    NASA deserves to be supported – look at what it has achieved – fantastic!

  • Matt Thompson

    Please give illustration credit for the first picture. There is no way that this is a “photograph” taken by New Horizons. The second image, yes… but the first has got to be a painting. Believe it or not, some people fall for this all the time.

    • curtissthompson

      You are correct. The featured image at the top is an artist illustration of Pluto’s surface courtesy of the ESA. We did provide a caption with image credit when we uploaded the photo. However, our custom theme currently does not have a way of displaying captions for featured images. This is an issue with our site’s design that we hope to resolve soon!

      • Matt Thompson

        Thanks Curtis. I’m sure most of your readers here on the website have a better understanding of such things, but I noticed on Google+ that at least one reader was under the impression that it was an actual photograph. It happens. I’ve seen this phenomenon all across social media and sometimes it’s downright funny. Sometimes it’s actually upsetting, when so many conspiracy theorists lurk about waiting for someone to speak up and make weird claims that “we never went to the moon” and such, based entirely on an unrelated image that is, to most people, obviously an artistic interpretation.

        Keep up the good work, and I look forward to more astounding photos from New Horizons! Maybe this latest Pluto craze will help your cause and get more people interested in space exploration again!