Pluto probe finds big mountains and young, crater-free surface

July 16, 2015 09:09
A new close-up image of a region near Pluto's equator shows a range of young mountains rising as high as 3,500 meters above the surface of the icy planet. Photo: Reuters

Icy mountains and a surprisingly young, crater-free surface are showing up in the first close-up views of Pluto.

The images are the first to emerge from a probe after a pass within 12,550 kilometers of Pluto on Tuesday.

The spacecraft had traveled 4.82 billion kilometers and nine months to within striking distance of Pluto. 

Reuters is reporting NASA's New Horizons mission is heading deeper into a region of the solar system beyond Neptune that is filled with thousands of Pluto-like ice-and-rock worlds believed to be remnants from the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago.

Scientists do not know how Pluto formed such big mountains, the tallest of which is nearly as high as the Canadian Rockies.

Another puzzle is why Pluto has such a young face.

The icy body, which is smaller than Earth's moon, should be pocked with impact craters, the result of rocks and boulders raining down over the eons.

Instead, New Horizons said the surface of Pluto has somehow been refreshed and the activity may be tied to an underground ocean, ice volcanoes or other geologic phenomenon that gives off heat.

Scientists said Pluto's mountains likely formed within the last 100 million years, a relative blink compared to the age of the solar system.

New Horizon's first close-up, which covered a patch of ground about 241 km. near Pluto's rugged equatorial region, has scientists wondering if the icy world is still geologically active.

"Pluto has so much diversity. We're seeing so many different features ... there’s nothing like it," New Horizons scientist Cathy Olkin told reporters at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab where the mission control center is located.

Another surprise was Pluto's primary moon, Charon, which was believed to be geologically dead. Instead, New Horizons found troughs, cliffs and giant canyons -- all evidence of internal processes.

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