Washington, July 16 (IANS) NASA’s New Horizons probe has discovered a stunning mountain range on Pluto with peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet above the surface.
The data suggests that the Pluto’s surface was formed no more than 100 million years ago – a mere youngster in a 4.56-billion-year-old solar system.
It also means that the close-up region, which covers about one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.
“This is one of the youngest surfaces we have ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore from NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Moffett Field, California.
The probe, now heading deeper into the mysterious Kuiper Belt beyond our solar system, also clicked a new, youthful view of Pluto’s largest moon Charon.
“New Horizons is a true mission of exploration showing us why basic scientific research is so important,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.
“Today, we get the first sampling of the scientific treasure collected during those critical moments and I can tell you it dramatically surpasses those high expectations,” he added.
Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body.
Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape, NASA said in a statement.
This may cause scientists to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds.
“New Horizons is returning amazing results already. The data look absolutely gorgeous, and Pluto and Charon are just mind blowing,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons.
The new view of Charon reveals a youthful and varied terrain.
Scientists are surprised by the apparent lack of craters. A swath of cliffs and troughs stretching about 1,000 km suggests widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust, likely the result of internal geological processes.
The image also shows a canyon estimated to be seven-nine km deep.
In Charon’s north polar region, the dark surface markings have a diffuse boundary, suggesting a thin deposit or stain on the surface.
New Horizons also observed the smaller members of the Pluto system, which includes four other moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.
A new sneak-peak image of Hydra is the first to reveal its apparent irregular shape and its size, estimated to be about 43-33 km.
The observations also indicate Hydra’s surface is probably coated with water ice.
Future images will reveal more clues about the formation of this and the other moon billions of years ago.
New Horizons travelled more than three billion miles over a period of nine years to reach the Pluto system.