The dwarf planet Pluto has been shrouded in mystery for decades, but recent advances in spacecraft technology have allowed us to uncover some of its secrets. In 2019, the New Horizons mission changed the way we view Pluto, revealing the distant world in unprecedented detail.
Since the mission’s launch in 2006, New Horizons has traveled more than three billion miles to reach Pluto, finally arriving in July 2015. After gathering data at its closest approach, the spacecraft continued on to explore the Kuiper Belt. In 2019, it sent back the most detailed images and data yet, allowing us to catch a glimpse of the distant world.
The data gathered by New Horizons shows us a curious world, with a variety of surface features, including mountains up to 11,000 feet tall, ice caps, and glaciers. The spacecraft’s images of the surface also revealed a variety of landforms, including cratered plains, pitted valleys, and jumbled mountains.
The mission also allowed us to explore Pluto’s atmosphere. The data gathered reveals that it is composed of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide, and is much thicker than scientists had predicted. This thicker atmosphere suggests that Pluto may be much warmer than previously thought, with temperatures ranging from minus 300 to minus 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
New Horizons also allowed us to peer into Pluto’s interior. Data revealed that it is made up of water ice, rock, and carbon-based compounds, as well as small amounts of organic molecules. The internal structure is believed to be layered, like that of a cake, with a central core surrounded by a mantle of water ice and a crust of rock and ice.
The mission has also revealed interesting facts about Pluto’s moons. Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, is believed to be composed of rock and ice, and has its own set of features, including a mountain range, craters, and valleys. Other moons, such as Hydra, Nix, and Kerberos, are much smaller, but are still believed to have a variety of features, including craters and fascinating ridges.
Pluto’s moons are also believed to be the source of the dwarf planet’s famous “heart,” which appears in many of the mission’s images. The “heart” is actually an area of high reflectivity, caused by nitrogen ice particles reflecting the sunlight.
Finally, New Horizons has allowed us to explore the Kuiper Belt, the region of icy debris beyond Neptune’s orbit. The spacecraft gathered data on several of these objects, providing us with insight into their composition, size, and shape.
The results of the New Horizons mission have been astounding, and have changed the way we think about Pluto. The data gathered has allowed us to uncover some of the mysteries of the distant world, revealing a dynamic, fascinating environment that is full of surprises. With more missions planned for the future, we are sure to uncover even more secrets about this distant world.