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Physical Chemistry

NASA Got Up Close And Personal With Pluto

Space Science: Spacecraft flyby brought us detailed images of the dwarf planet

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
December 21, 2015 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 93, ISSUE 49

RESOLUTION REVOLUTION
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Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

COVER STORY

NASA got up close and personal with Pluto

After a journey of nearly 10 years, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past the dwarf planet Pluto in July and brought us the first detailed images of the solar system’s most distant world, 5 billion km away.

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Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
New Horizons captured this image of water-ice mountains crushed up against glacial plains on Pluto.
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
New Horizons captured this image of water-ice mountains crushed up against glacial plains on Pluto.

During the months since the flyby, the craft has beamed to Earth stunning visions of craggy water-ice mountains and a now-iconic heart-shaped plain, as well as data suggesting volcanic activity.

On Dec. 4, NASA released the first of the highest-resolution images captured by New Horizons on its closest approach to Pluto’s surface, displaying glaciers and craters that are less than half a city block in size.

Pluto was discovered in 1930, but both Earth- and space-based telescopes hadn’t been able to resolve much of its surface detail. “These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto’s geology,” said the New Horizons mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern, of NASA’s Southwest Research Institute.

While cruising by Pluto, New Horizons also collected images of the drawf planet’s moons, most notably the largest, Charon, which is half the diameter of its parent. Charon’s north pole is draped in a layer of tholins—sticky, dark hydrocarbons formed from the reaction of solar radiation with solid nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane.

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