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Posted on August 4th, 2015

Reaching Orbit – New Horizons

Ever since its discovery in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto has gone through many ups and downs in the eyes of the world, first being a planet and then evicted from the planet family. Up until recently, the composition and topography of Pluto has been a mystery. A relatively young celestial object not obscured by clouds and dust makes it a body of great speculation, however its distance from Earth made previous research very difficult. Now we have the closest view of Pluto that we have ever seen thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft that zoomed by the icy dwarf planet on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. After nearly a decade of travel through our solar system and three billion miles, the New Horizons spacecraft flew within 7,750 miles of Pluto, collecting copious amounts of data to send back to Earth. As it whizzes by collecting data on Pluto, communication with the spacecraft goes dark, as it can’t simultaneous collect and transmit data.

The New Horizons mission is amazing when you consider that it has flown through space at 30,000 mph for three billion miles, passing through a 36-by-57 mile window. The slightest run in with even the smallest object could have destroyed the craft. Now, 10 years of data is slowly being transmitted to Earth, the entire process will take nearly 16 months. Researchers eagerly process the data as it returns to Earth. So far they have discovered a mountain range in the large heart-shaped feature on Pluto, with mountains soaring 11,000 feet above the surface. Near the mountain range is a large crater-less plain, believed to be only 100 million years old and still being formed be geologic activity. To the west of what has been dubbed the Sputnik Plain is another, smaller mountain range, about the height of the Appalachian Mountains, around one mile tall. These geologic activities are the youngest ever witnessed on an alien surface and have garnered much attention.

The New Horizons Ralph instrument has found large amounts of methane ice scattered on the surface of Pluto. Each region appears to reflect light differently indicating varying composition. The New Horizons surface composition team begins their mission of digging through the data to shift out the more detailed composition of each region. New Horizon also turned its watchful eye on Pluto’s moon Charon. Charon’s surface appears to be undergoing geologic activity as well, with fractures in the crust, creating cliffs and valleys with surprisingly few craters. The spacecraft also observed some of Pluto’s other moons including Kerberos, Nix, Styx and Hydra. Researchers will continue to devour the data collected by New Horizons for years to come in order to garner a better understanding of alien surfaces and our own.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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