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Welcome to Pluto, where you’ll find mountains the size of the Rockies

Today, NASA released the first ever close-up photographs of Pluto. The images showed icy mountains and a mysterious pale patch shaped like a heart. Judy Woodruff speaks to science correspondent Miles O’Brien about what we have learned about Pluto so far.

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  • Editor’s note:

    Miles O'Brien misspoke Wednesday when he said that the New Horizons spacecraft was "8,000 feet" above the surface of Pluto. It was about 8,000 miles above the surface.


    After a three-billion-mile journey by a spacecraft named New Horizons, NASA finally had the chance today to release the first ever close-up photos of the dwarf planet Pluto.

    The images showed mountains on the surface and features as small as a half-a-mile in size. Scientists showed the pictures at a news conference, and said they could very well change the way they think about Pluto and that area of the solar system known as the Kuiper belt.


    The most striking thing geologically is we have not yet found a single impact crater on this image.

    This means this is a very young surface, because Pluto's been bombarded by objects in the Kuiper belt and it's bound — craters happen. So, we — just eyeballing it, we think it has to be probably less than 100 million years old, which is a small fraction of the 4.5 billion-year age of the solar system.

    Science correspondent Miles O'Brien was watching that news conference today, and he joins us from Boston.

    So, Miles, this is exciting. What do these pictures show?


    A much more interesting feature-filled place than we probably expected.

    I don't know about you, Judy, but I always thought about Pluto as being this dark, lifeless, icy ball way distant in the far reaches of our imagination. But the closer we get to Pluto, the more interesting the features are, 11,000-foot peaks made of ice and, very interestingly, a surface that is not pockmarked, as our moon is, and that's an interesting clue for planetary scientists, because when you look a place like our moon and you see all those crater impacts, you can say, well, that's a dead planet.

    There's no geologic activity, no tectonic activity. But Pluto and Charon, its moon, they're kind of a binary system, are amazingly crater-free. So, that means they're active. There's geologic activity, maybe a molten core and who knows what else beneath that icy surface. So, it's very exciting.


    So, when you say ice on the mountains and on the surface, are you saying ice as we know it on Earth?


    Water ice apparently on Pluto and water ice on Charon.

    What's interesting about this is, wherever we look on our planet and find liquid water, we find life. Now, we see ice on these two bodies. If they do, in fact, have molten cores and there is geologic activity, could there be underground liquid aquifers? Maybe.

    The scientists won't go that far this day. They don't have the data to prove it, but it opens up the imagination, doesn't it? Could there be microscopic Plutonians out there? Who knows.



    So, how much more, Miles, can they tell about what's in and what is on Pluto from this spacecraft that is still how far away from the planet, from the dwarf planet?


    Well, it whizzed by somewhere between 20 and 40 times faster than a speeding bullet on its way, way past Pluto already.

    It was a little less than 8,000 feet above the surface and it just Hoovered up as much data, took as many pictures as it could. As a matter of fact, it shut down communications with Earth, making the scientists have to sweat it out as it did its work. Now it's sending back its data at the whopping rate of — I don't know if you remember 2,400-baud.

    Well, half as fast as that, 1,000 baud, one kilobit per second. So it is going to take a while to get all this data in. But it's filled with spectrometers which look at all manner of infrared and various aspects of the spectrum to sort of really suss out what's going on in the atmosphere of Pluto, as well as what is going on, on the surface, and Charon as well.

    And this data along with some information about the amount of dust in the atmosphere, and then of course these visual images, as well as infrared images, will give them a real sense of what Pluto is made of. And what is interesting about this is, you have to think about the Kuiper belt as being the deep freeze with all the ingredients of what makes us in our solar system be what we are.

    So, if you want to see what we're made of, go to the deep freeze, the Kuiper belt, and take a look. And you will see what we're made of. So there's a real connection to how our planet evolved.


    And what can you tell us about this — I guess there has been a lot of conversation about this heart-shaped area on Pluto. What's that all about?


    We don't know. It's a very — it's interestingly — for a planet which has more features than we thought, this heart-shaped light area which appears to be like a valentine is, relatively speaking, featureless. What is it? We don't know.

    It just got named for the founder of Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, who found it out at the Percival Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1930, who's ashes apparently are on board the New Horizons spacecraft. And it was just named for him by the scientists.

    But this will be an area of a lot of interest right now. And they will be looking at the edges of this area, where this lighter area meets a darker area around it, to see if they can figure out what's going on.


    Well, dare I ask you about that point? There is some conversation out there about whether Pluto will be reconsidered and maybe it will be a planet after all. Is that settled that it's not one?


    Well, you know, if you ask the scientists, they have their rules and they will tell you Pluto is not a planet in the classic sense, because, if you made Pluto a planet, there is dozens of other objects like it in the Kuiper belt, and so you would have to keep going on and on.

    And so we have to draw the line somewhere. I say, number one, Pluto should be grandfathered in because we all love Pluto, as an example of Kuiper belt objects.



    And, number two, it's the only binary system in our solar system, so it should get a special exemption.

    I say Pluto gets grandfathered in, and that's the end of it. But if you're talking to Neil Tyson or Mike Brown at Caltech, they get their scientific dander up when I say that.


    Well, there's nobody we'd rather look at the Kuiper belt with than Miles O'Brien.

    We thank you.



    You're welcome, Judy.


    And you can watch much more about this mission on NOVA tonight. "Chasing Pluto" airs later this evening on most PBS stations.

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