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New Horizons captures Pluto's surface

Earth, meet Pluto

Earth, meet Pluto.

After nine years, 3 billion miles and then 31 long hours after yesterday’s historic flyby, the first richly-detailed images of Pluto and its moons have been released.

And it’s gorgeous. Images show icy mountains as high as 11,000 feet on Pluto and, surprisingly, not a single impact crater. This indicates that the surface is young, scientists say, one of the youngest planet surfaces ever seen.

“Just having one image of just 1 percent of [Pluto’s surface] and finding mountain ranges like the Rockies is balloon popping,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission.

The presence of these surface features have a surprising implication: tidal heating is not necessary to power the geologic activity there. On other planets, geologic activity is believed to be fueled by the tremendous gravitational pull of a larger nearby planet. But with no large bodies nearby, something else is responsible for the mountains and other geology and the absence of craters.

Pluto observations through the years

“One thing that we can say for sure is tidal energy isn’t at work here,” Stern said. “Pluto and Charon are in tidal equilibrium.”

In a live press conference, NASA zoomed in on Pluto’s heart-shaped region, which, they announced, is now named Tombaugh Regio after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. The images showed a 150-mile area of icy bedrock and mountains.

“We thought Pluto would be a cold, dead, lonely place, said NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien. “It turns out to be fascinating, with a lot more features than we thought. It turns out to be a lot more alive than we thought.”

Ice could be evidence of water ice, and a lack of craters suggests a molten core, some kind of tectonic activity in the dwarf planet’s interior. “This all raises intriguing questions,” he said. For example, could there be life on Pluto? Some of the ingredients seem to be there.

This first close-up image of Pluto is just the first piece in a larger planetary puzzle. More images will be revealed on Friday.

Scientists also showed an image of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, “a small world with deep canyons, troughs, cliffs and dark regions that are mysterious to us,” according to NASA’s Cathy Olkin. This image of Charon, described as “surprisingly youthful and varied,” shows a dark region on its north pole that scientists are calling Mordor and a canyon as deep as six miles.

As Miles O’Brien reported on Tuesday’s NewsHour, the journey of the New Horizons spacecraft to the Kuiper belt and dwarf planet Pluto began in 2006. It left the Earth faster than any spacecraft ever and got a gravitational kick from Jupiter, snapping pictures as it bulleted past, headed for Pluto.

Just before 8 a.m. ET on Tuesday, mission control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland filled with cheers and hands waving flags as scientists, spectators and Tombaugh’s children counted down to the flyby. And then a second celebration, 13 hours later, as New Horizons phoned home, beaming a series of “status messages.” It was there, and all was well. President Obama tweeted too:

By 3 pm ET Wednesday, the New Horizons spacecraft was already 1 million miles beyond Pluto.

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