After nearly ten years and just over 3 billion miles, NASA’s probe New Horizons flew by Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour and used seven scientific instruments to gather so much data it will take 16 months for it all to get back to Earth. That’s an impressive voyage, but what have we learned from it so far?
Here is a short list of things that New Horizons has taught us about Pluto and its moons:
1. Pluto is 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers) in diameter – which is just 18.5% of Earth’s diameter. However, Pluto is officially larger than any known solar system object beyond Neptune.
3. Pluto’s moon Nix is about 26 miles (about 42 kilometers) across and its moon Hydra is roughly 34 miles (roughly 55 kilometers) across.
4. The probe found Charon to be full of chasms and craters.
5. New Horizons discovered the “Sputnik Planum,” an icy plain no more than 100 million years old. The plain is probably being shaped by geological processes as we speak
6. The probe found an 11,000 ft. high mountain range near Pluto’s equator that may still be in the process of building itself.
7. Pluto is red. Complex hydrocarbon compounds give Pluto’s surface its reddish hue.
8. The Atmospheres Team observed Pluto’s atmosphere as far as 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) above the surface.
9. Pluto has a plasma tail. Ionized gas was found to be tens of thousands of miles behind the dwarf planet. Pluto’s atmosphere is being blown into space by solar winds.
With all the data that New Horizons is send back we have barely scratched the surface of discovery. The New Horizons mission will continue to send data stored in its onboard recorders back to Earth through late 2016. Who knows what else we might discover?