September 17, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

"Overdose of Awesomeness": New Pluto Images Show Unpredicted Activity

More images have been released from New Horizons’ July 14 flyby of Pluto, showing youthful mountains, glaciers and an escaping atmosphere.

The following is just one of the new images making the New Horizons Twitter Feed erupt in WOW!!! exclamations:

Pluto lookback image 15 minutes after closest approach July 14, 2015

Pluto lookback image 15 minutes after closest approach July 14, 2015

Dr. Phil Metzger’s tweet “Overdose of awesomeness!” sums up the feelings of scientists looking over the latest images posted by NASA’s New Horizons mission today. The stunning panoramas, taken just 15 minutes after closest approach last July 14, show mountains rivaling the Rockies or Sierras (about 11,000′ high) adjacent to the smooth plains of Sputnik Planum. Additional high-res images show nitrogen glaciers flowing from the mountains onto the plains, and shadows cast by the mountains onto apparent ground fog. The thin nitrogen atmosphere also shows unexpected structure, with over a dozen layers visible.

Last week (Sept. 10), a press release from New Horizons summed up Pluto’s surface this way: “It’s complicated.”

New close-up images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reveal a bewildering variety of surface features that have scientists reeling because of their range and complexity.

“Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado. “If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top — but that’s what is actually there.

New Horizons geologist Jeff Moore described Pluto’s surface as “every bit as complex as that of Mars” — a remarkable description for a body a third the diameter of Mars and 26 times farther from the sun. Laws of physics demand that smaller objects lose heat faster, and objects more distant from stars should be the coldest. Sources of heat are limited: radioactive elements should be depleted this late in Pluto’s assumed age, and Pluto is not subjected to significant tidal forces.

New images also show the most heavily cratered — and thus oldest — terrain yet seen by New Horizons on Pluto next to the youngest, most crater-free icy plains. There might even be a field of dark wind-blown dunes, among other possibilities.

Seeing dunes on Pluto — if that is what they are — would be completely wild, because Pluto’s atmosphere today is so thin,” said William B. McKinnon, a GGI deputy lead from Washington University, St. Louis. “Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we haven’t figured out is at work. It’s a head-scratcher.”

  The surprise extends to the satellites of Pluto:

Discoveries being made from the new imagery are not limited to Pluto’s surface. Better images of Pluto’s moons Charon, Nix, and Hydra will be released Friday at the raw images site for New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), revealing that each moon is unique and that big moon Charon’s geological past was a tortured one.

Surprise, not vindication, is clear from quotes by the scientists. “Now we can study geology in terrain that we never expected to see,” John Spencer said on Sept. 10th. “Pluto is surprisingly Earth-like in this regard,” Alan Stern remarked today, “and no one predicted it.

Update 9/18/15: At The Conversation, David Rothery, professor of planetary geosciences at The Open University, discusses what the images mean. Sample:

This is probably nitrogen snow covering water-ice terrain, and there are signs that nitrogen-ice flows glacier-like from the bright rigged terrain into the flat area. Why here? How recent? We don’t know….

While the images tell us a lot about Pluto and Charon, they also raise a number of new questions. We simply don’t know what controls the localised nitrogen snowfall, the intricate haze layers or the old fractures that cut through the craters. We don’t know why Pluto’s surface is so diverse or its atmosphere so complex, or how much of this is driven by tidal interactions between Pluto and Charon. The list goes on.

Additional images and data from the encounter will trickle down over the 10 months.

Hey, Alan! We predicted it. On July 9, before the encounter, we predicted: (1) active geology and evidence of resurfacing, (2) atmospheric escape rates too rapid for billions of years, (3) moons that will challenge the idea they were formed by a collision, (4) reporters would leap from evidence of water ice to speculations about life.  We haven’t found the L-word life in the press releases yet (at least since 7/27/11), but our first 3 predictions have been confirmed.

Why were we successful? The reason: we don’t bow down to the A.S.S. (age of the solar system, 4.5 billion years), the Law of the Misdeeds and Perversions that Cannot Be Altered. Openness to younger ages has a long track record of success explaining youthful features on Enceladus, Titan, Saturn, Mars, Mercury, comets, Io, Earth, etc. etc.

Resource: Jason Lisle’s report, “New Horizons at Pluto” at ICR posted August 2015.

 

 

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