Yesterday, NASA's New Horizons probe delighted space enthusiasts around the world with its historic flyby of Pluto and its five moons. Today, the Plutonian party continues as the first detailed data from the spacecraft's interplanetary encounter arrives back on Earth.
It would be an understatement to say it blew a few minds.
"I had a pretty good day yesterday, how about you?" joked New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern In a public NASA TV briefing this afternoon.
The new results are "baffling in a very interesting and wonderful way," added the mission's geophysics lead John Spencer.
Indeed, the most recent images reveal that Pluto is home to impressive mountain ranges, which stretch 11,000 feet high. They are the first high resolution pictures of the planet ever released.
These ranges lie at the lower edge the iconic heart-shaped region identified last week, which the leads announced today is officially named Tombaugh Regio in honor of Pluto's discoverer Clyde Tombaugh.
Not to be upstaged by its orbital partner, Pluto's largest moon Charon revealed itself to be an equally fascinating world. A 1,000-kilometer wide fracture runs across its equator, suggesting recent geological activity, and a dark region characterizes its north pole. The team has been informally referring to the region as Mordor, deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin noted at the briefing.
Charon also hosts an enormous canyon with a depth of up to nine kilometers, which was captured at the upper right side of this new image. "Pluto did not disappoint," said Olkin, "and I can add that Charon did not disappoint either."
Furthermore, New Horizons snapped shots of Pluto's moon Hydra, revealing its size for the first time ever—a diminutive 27 by 20 miles.
Images of the dwarf planet's three other moons, Styx, Nix, and Kerberos, will surface as the mission leads receive new data from the probe.
Along those lines, NASA plans to hold another briefing this Friday to deliver the next round of discoveries about Pluto and its satellites. We can expect more information about the dwarf planet's atmosphere, surface composition, and geological characteristics, not to mention that images with even higher resolution are on the way.
The New Horizons probe hung out with Pluto and its moons for only a brief stretch of time, but the pictures it took and information it collected will be parsed for years to come. This mysterious, fuzzy world on the edge of our solar system has finally popped into focus for us, and as it turns out, it has a lot of stories to tell.