Pluto Space P+1

And thus it was that the Robot Who Lived after passing through the lands of Pluto, Charon, Styx, Nix, Hydra, and Kerberos, turned toward its home and sung the faint song of its victory. Those who had sent the Robot on its mission heard that song, and there was much rejoicing and awe.

This morning we got the first two high quality photographs of Pluto and Charon, the first picture of any kind of Hydra, and the start of the sixteen-month “data waterfall” that New Horizons will rain down on us following its closest approach yesterday. This will be your “Reader’s Digest” version of what we’re seeing in these photos – for more detailed information, refer to any of the sources I listed three days ago, particularly the two official New Horizons sites and Emily Lackdawalla’ s blog posts for The Planetary Society.

Pluto & Charon

Photo: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

One of the last pictures taken on the way inbound to Pluto that showed both Pluto and Charon in the same frame. After that, New Horizons was too close to see them both.

Charon

Photo: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Charon in detail. Most folks expected something heavily cratered since it was believed that there were no active processes that could “erase” craters once they occurred. On Earth, Mars, Venus, and Titan there are winds and rain, as well as tectonic movements and volcanoes. On Io there are massive sulfur volcanoes. On Europa and Enceladus there are tidal forces to generate heat, which in turn drives geysers and other active processes. It was expected to find none of that this far out, this cold, on a “dead” world.

Surprise!

Very few craters, so something’s erased them. This is a “young” surface, probably less than 100 million years old. (In geologic terms where these bodies formed between four and six billion years ago, 100 million years is “young.”) Massive canyon systems, some as deep as four or five miles. On the horizon at about the two o’clock position you can see two notches in the disc where a huge canyon loops around. We’re actually looking sideways through two holes in the crust that are miles and miles deep.

The dark spot at the north pole is probably liquid nitrogen that has escaped from Pluto’s atmosphere and been captured by Charon. The area has tentatively been named “Mordor.”

Hydra

Photo: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Hydra’s small and far away even for New Horizons, but this was the first picture of it that was more than just a couple of pixels wide. Hydra is only about 27 by 20 miles, somewhat football or cigar shaped. This image might indicate an even more irregular shape than that, possibly with a huge crater at the right “end.” Given its mass, size, and extremely bright white color, Hydra is believe to be almost all water ice.

Pluto Hi-Def Section Location

Photo: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Pluto, the star of the show. Overlaid at the bottom of the full-disc picture of Pluto we got just before the closest encounter procedures began, you can see where the high-def picture is located. It’s the bottom left part of the “heart” formation.

Pluto

Photo: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Again, not flat, or even flat-ish. That range of mountains there goes up to 11,000 feet, the size of the Rockies. Those mountains are made of solid water ice, which is hard as rock at this temperature. But how did they get formed? It looks like some sort of tectonic activity, but there shouldn’t be any plates in the crust of Pluto. In fact, Pluto shouldn’t even have a “crust” as we think of it.

Again, not cratered. One of the scientists said something to the effect that one of the last things he would have ever expected would be to find almost no craters on massive sections of Pluto. But that’s what we have.

What is that hilly or bumpy section to the lower right of center? What’s that sort of “slash” across the big blobby area just below center, a long hole of some sort, or a shadow from a long, HIGH, straight cliff? What could have caused that? Then there are sections that are flat, plain, and craterless. Why no craters? Then there’s that long “crease passing through the blobby area, running from about the center to the lower right. Did Pluto get into a mean knife fight somewhere along the way?

During the press conference one thing heard over and over in response to questions was some variant of, “I don’t know.” “We’re baffled.” “We have no clue.” “No idea.” That’s wonderful.

Yet there were hundreds of folks on Twitter responding with, “What do you mean, you don’t know? You’re the big brains, the scientists! How can you not know?”

This displays one of the fundamental problems I see with the gap between the sciences and large parts of the general population that don’t understand the scientific method. A basic tenet is that we often don’t know, and we need to admit it and then go start asking questions. We didn’t know what we would find on Pluto – that’s why we went! Now some of our questions are being answered and they almost all lead to a hundred more questions. If we think we know something about our models and hypotheses (i.e., “It will be heavily cratered and flat”) and then we’re shown to be wrong, it’s time to adjust or toss out the models and find new ways to understand what’s going on, ways that fit the existing data.

The universe doesn’t care what we think we “know.” Therefore, being inflexible and having the arrogance to think you have all of the answers is a sure-fire sign of someone who’s WRONG. It’s one of the reasons I love seeing science done, particularly on this sort of grand scale. It’s also one of the reason that I get so impatient and frustrated with certain groups that sanctimoniously declare that they’re 100% right and the universe has to bend to them, no matter how much data there is to show that they’re wrong. (I’ll leave it as an exercise to the student to figure out the kind of folks I’m referring to there.)

My heroes will keep on exploring, searching, and probing. They’ll find themselves to be wrong in some small or huge way. They’ll figure out a better way and then go explore some more, building each level of understanding on the bedrock (or “bed-ice” in this case) of the facts that have come before.

Speaking of which, the next release of new photos and press conference to discuss them is on Friday morning. Watch it on NASA-TV or online.

Time to start wallowing in fresh, juicy data!

 

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