LAUREL, Md. (WJZ) — A billion mile mission based right here in Maryland. Late Wednesday, NASA releases more incredible photos of Pluto from the New Horizons probe.
Alex DeMetrick on the excitement brewing at NASA.
It’s appropriate that NASA did release those first closeup photos of Pluto in Laurel, because the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab built and is controlling the New Horizons spacecraft.
After the celebration when New Horizons flew by Pluto Tuesday morning came the daylong wait for the spacecraft to signal Earth it was alive and well.
That was as much relief as it was joy. It was also the beginning of New Horizons’ beaming back what it found.
“There is so much interesting science in this one image alone,” said Cathy Olkin, mission scientist.
The first close image of Pluto’s moon, Charon, comes with a surprise.
“Near the top at about the 2 o’clock position, you see a canyon. And that canyon is really quite deep. It’s about four to six miles deep. I find that fascinating,” said Olkin.
But the showstopper was a section of Pluto that New Horizons’ camera zoomed in on. Geology no one expected was suddenly revealed.
“These mountains here that we’re seeing were quite spectacular. These are up to 11,000 feet high. We’re seeing the icy crust of water ice is strong enough at Pluto temperatures to hold up big mountains, and that’s what we think we are seeing here,” said John Spencer, mission scientist.
Months of data are still stored aboard the spacecraft to be downloaded in sequence bursts.
All the while, New Horizons moves deeper into the frozen debris of the Kuiper Belt–two of those objects may also be studied.
“So what are those? They’re building blocks of Pluto. That’s what Pluto’s made up of,” said Jim Green, director NASA planetary science.
And each discovery lifts the veil of what was the Solar System’s last unseen world.
Scientists estimate New Horizons has collected enough data to keep them busy for at least the next year and a half.
With speeds over 36,000 miles per hour, New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched. In fact, it’s already gone 1 million miles past Pluto.