The first ever high-resolution image of Pluto has been beamed back to Earth revealing 11,000ft (3,350 metre) mountains made of ice.
The remarkable image, released alongside new pictures of Pluto’s moons Charon and Hydra, provides evidence that geological activity is still taking place on the icy world.
Scientists were shocked to see mountains as high as those in the Rockies that likely formed 100 million years ago – mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system. Nasa says they may still be in the process of building.
Like the rest of Pluto, this region would presumably have been pummeled by space debris for billions of years and would have once been heavily cratered – unless recent activity had given the region a facelift, erasing those pockmarks.
‘We now have an isolated small planet that is showing activity after 4.5 billion years,’ said Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator. ‘It’s going to send a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing board.’
‘This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,’ added Jeff Moore of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI).
This is the first time astronomers have seen a world that is mostly composed of ice that is not orbiting a planet.
Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by the gravitational pull of a larger planetary body. Nasa says some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.
‘This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,’ says GGI deputy team leader John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute.
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