Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

After nearly a decade, New Horizons has not only made its flyby of Pluto, it’s sent home photos! While you can count the time between a flash of lightning and the sound of thunder using the reliable “one alligator” method and be done before you get tired of standing by the window, the images from Pluto took 4.6 hours to make the trip. For me, that’s an eye-opening comparison that brings home the distance this craft has traveled.

New Horizons will be sending home other images from the Kuiper Belt – the area where Pluto hangs out. And while we’re at it, the reason Pluto is no longer a planet is that it does not have a cleared orbital path – there are other objects in the orbit. Think of Earth and Mars and Mercury. They have their orbits with those nice oval lines to show us where they’ve been and where they’re going. Pluto has a bunch of sidekicks that are reminiscent of a fall out of hyperspeed into an asteroid field but not really.

So – the images. The images reveal that Pluto is not just a ball of ice hanging out in space. It is a ball of ice with mountains as tall as the Rockies.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The images also show that there have been surface changes due to geological processes on the dwarf planet – that sounds so insulting. Geological processes? Think “volcanoes” and while you’re doing that, note that Mission scientist John Spencer told journalists, “we have not found a single impact crater on this image. This means it must be a very young surface.”

This single image is enough for scientists to re-think the thinking about geological activity on icy moons. The active geology needs a source of heat. Clearly Pluto isn’t getting what is known as “tidal heating” from its gravitational interactions with a large planet. “You do not need tidal heating to power geological activity on icy worlds. That’s a really important discovery we just made this morning.”

I’ve been space happy ever since the first man stepped onto the surface of the Moon. I was young enough to worry that he’d sink into miles of lunar dust, yet old enough to realize this was just the start of a grand adventure. How amazing is it that we are now receiving images from that former planet that always messed up the scale on our model solar systems?

[Featured image courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute]

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