New Horizons Spacecraft Reveals Pluto’s Heart

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New Horizons Spacecraft Reveals Pluto’s Heart

Despite being demoted to a dwarf planet in 2006 by the International Astronomical

Union, Pluto is still as impressive as its bigger, older solar system siblings! Over nine

years after blasting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA’s piano-sized

New Horizons spacecraft flew within 7700 miles of the planet’s surface. Alan Stern, who

is the principal investigator for New Horizons, had this to say about the images the

probe sent back to earth: “I’m completely surprised.” Here are a few things about Pluto

and its moons that are astounding Stern and other scientists:

Pluto’s Flat Heart. South of the planet’s equator there is a heart-shaped region named

after Clyde Tombaugh, who first discovered Pluto in 1930. New images reveal that the

area is relatively flat. There are no craters from impacts by space debris, which means

that the planet is relatively young at only a hundred million years old! “I would never

have believed that the first close up picture we get of Pluto didn’t have a single impact

crater on it,” said planetary scientist John Spencer. Considering that our solar system

has been around for four and a half billion years, this means that Pluto is practically an

infant!

Charon’s Grand Canyon. Pluto’s largest moon Charon has chasms even bigger than

the Grand Canyon. The troughs extend over 600 miles across the surface.

Ice Mountains. Although it doesn’t have craters, Pluto has plenty of mountains, some

over 11,000 feet high! Astronomers originally assumed that the mountains were made

of nitrogen ice, methane ice, and carbon monoxide ice. However, according to Spencer,

mountains that tall could never be made of elements so soft. That means that the

mountains are most likely made of water! Scientists are always thrilled to find water

elsewhere in the universe because it is one of the key ingredients of life. If we’re going

to find life in the universe it will most likely be in the vicinity of water.

Like Pluto, the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are

also named after figures from ancient mythology. Because Pluto was the Roman god of

Hades (Hell), the names of its satellites are also related to the underworld. Charon is

named after the ferryman who took passengers across the river Styx (the title of another

satellite) and into the land of the dead. Nix (Nyx) was a goddess of the night. The

legendary Hercules defeated the Hydra, which was a nearly indestructible snake with

nine heads. Kerberos is a reference to Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded

the gates of Hades.

As fun as it is learning facts about Pluto and its moons, it’s equally entertaining to hear

about the various regions’ hilarious nicknames, including Cthulu, Balrog, Krun, and Ala

among other characters associated with death and darkness. Pluto may be a glorified

asteroid now (no thanks to the IAU), but it has the coolest names in the solar system!

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