Pluto’s Closeup


Earlier this month, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made headlines. July 14th marked the first time that a spacecraft successfully explored the dwarf planet Pluto up close.

After hurtling through our solar system for over a decade at a speed of over 30,000 miles per hour, New Horizons finally reached its closest approach to Pluto, approximately 7,750 miles from the surface on July 14th. This was the first-ever space mission that successfully explored a world so distant from Earth.

New Horizons gathered data as it approached the planet, but by Wednesday, the information made its way back to Earthbound scientists and the rest of the world.

According to Jeff Moore of New Horizons’ Geology, GGI Team,

“The mountains likely formed no more than 100 million years ago — mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system — and may still be in the process of building”.

This information means that a small percentage of Pluto’s surface is in fact active to this day! This coupled with the seemingly unblemished nature of the surface of the planet imply that Pluto is fairly young compared to the other systems that we’ve been able to observe within our solar system.

Pluto is not heated through gravitational interactions with a larger planetary body so scientists believe that another process is responsible  for creating Pluto’s mountainous terrain. Presumably the mountains are composed of a water-ice “bedrock.”

Both methane and nitrogen ice cover a large portion of Pluto’s surface, but these materials aren’t durable enough to be responsible for the mountains. It’s more likely that the stronger material of water ice created these mountains.  Because Pluto is so cold, water maintains properties that are more similar to rock than to ice.

Scientists have already gleaned a lot of information from these first images of Pluto, and in 16 months a cache of computer data from New Horizons will make it’s way back to our planet.  It will be exciting to see what we glean from that.


A video posted by NASA (@nasa) on