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NASA Reveals Closest Look Ever at Pluto

by Mark Snowiss July 15, 2015

U.S. scientists are releasing photos Wednesday that offer the closest look ever at Pluto, after an unmanned NASA spacecraft whizzed by the distant dwarf planet following its nearly 10-year journey of 4.8 billion kilometers (nearly 3 billion miles).

The nuclear-powered New Horizons – moving faster than any spacecraft ever built previously, at a speed of about 49,570 kilometers per hour (30,800 miles per hour) – snapped pictures of Pluto as it hurtled by.

The photos reveal details of the planet never seen before.

Scientists say they're amazed at the first up-close images of Pluto and its big moon Charon.

A zoom-in of Pluto reveals an icy range about as high as the Rockies. To the scientists' great surprise, there are no impact craters. On Charon, deep troughs and canyons can be seen.

Young mountains

Scientists say the mountains, most likely composed of Pluto's water-ice 'bedrock', were probably formed less than 100 million years ago and may still be in the process of growing.

'This is one of the youngest surfaces we've ever seen in the solar system,' said Jeff Moore of New Horizons' Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI).

Scientists say that Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a larger planetary body, which is how mountainous landscapes are generally formed.

'This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,' said GGI deputy team leader John Spencer.

Long sought

The long-awaited images are being released after being downlinked from New Horizons.

'Sending back 'first-look' data to the team 'down under,'' the New Horizons team tweeted Wednesday, indicating its space antenna in Canberra, Australia, was receiving information from the craft.

The mission completes the exploration of the solar system, and it makes the United States the first nation to send a space probe to every planet from Mercury to Pluto.

After a long day awaiting New Horizons' fate while the spacecraft was out of radio contact, mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Center outside Washington, D.C., were finally able to exhale late Tuesday, 13 hours after the flyby.

Applause broke out as the spacecraft made its 'phone-home' contact with Earth and all systems were reported intact.

'We have a healthy spacecraft,' said mission operations manager Alice Bowman. 'We are outbound from Pluto.'

The confirmation calmed nerves among scientists who were waiting all day to find out if the $700 million New Horizons survived cosmic debris in the Kuiper Belt, the region beyond Neptune that is similar to the asteroid belt, but about 20 to 200 times as massive.

'Once again we have achieved a historic first,' said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. 'The United States is the first nation to reach Pluto, and with this mission, we have visited every single planet in our solar system.'

'NASA as an agency is on a journey to Mars with other agencies around the world,' Bolden continued. 'Today's mission was just one more step on the journey of getting humans to Mars, because it gives us one more piece of the puzzle about our solar system.'

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