New Horizons Discovers Cryovolanoes on Pluto

Pluto and Charon Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto and Charon
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Cryovolcanoes. It sounds like the title to yet another of the Syfy Channel’s horrendous Saturday night movies. Instead, it is only one of a stunning series of discoveries taken from the agonizingly slow (4 kilobits per second) stream of data being transmitted by the New Horizons spacecraft as it speeds away from the Pluto-Charon system.

The latest findings from the Bastille Day flyby were presented yesterday at the 47th annual American Astronautical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences meeting. Among the other gems from what is turning out to be one of NASA’s most surprise laden planetary missions yet, is the realization that former major planet Pluto is both geologically active and unexpectedly diverse, offering some regions which appear to be nearly as old as the planet itself, and others which are essentially brand new, having been shaped withing the last 10 million years.

And then there are the four minor moons of Styx, Hydra, Kerberos and Nix, which orbit the Pluto- Charon system in a wildly chaotic fashion which sees Hydra spin on its axis 89 times per revolution.

Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that the four irregularly shaped minor moons appear to be the mashed up results of smaller bodies colliding with one another.

Slides from the presentation are here, and the NASA press release with more details can be found here.

The next major event for New Horizons is a planned New Year’s Eve 2018/2019 flyby of the 30 mile wide Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69.

Hopefully by that time the object will have a better name, Sy-Fy will have changed its name back to Sci-Fi while making the occasional good movie, and the college football playoff committee will have learned that New Year’s Eve is a really stupid time to have its two elimination games.

 

Posted in: Outer Planets

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