NASA’s New Horizons team released the latest set of Pluto imagery Friday afternoon. And among the most fascinating finds are the dwarf planet’s smooth, craterless plains — informally dubbed Sputnik Planum — which push up against mountains of ice as tall as Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
“I think the solar system saved the best for last,” Principal Investigator Alan Stern said in a press conference at NASA Headquarters.
New Horizons co-investigator Jeff Moore said the newly unveiled vast, craterless plain that can’t be easily explained, but surely has a strange story to tell.
“I’m still having to remind myself to take deep breaths,” he said. “The landscape geology is just astoundingly amazing.”
While larger-scale images of Pluto show ancient craters that are perhaps billions of years old, Tombaugh Regio is very young with signs of ongoing erosion and fractures that imply some form of tectonics.
“Pluto is every bit as geologically active as any place we’ve seen in the solar system,” Moore said.
Pluto’s Icy Heart
The landscape bares a strong resemblance to Mars’ arctic regions, as it’s webbed with a similar network of potentially wind-swept or even erupted features, plus polygons and cracks — some of which are filled with a dark material that has the team excited.
“Judging form the absence of impact craters, it’s clear Sputnik Planum couldn’t be older than 100 million years old and perhaps much younger even,” Moore said, adding that “it could be a week old for all we know.”
Finding cryovolcanism — ice volcanoes — would be among the most exciting finds from Pluto. However, the New Horizons team was careful to say it hadn’t yet found plumes like those of Neptune’s moon Triton and other icy bodies. However, the images are still just a few of the stream that will continue to flood out over more than the next year, giving even better resolution on Pluto’s surprising complexity.