NASA’s New Horizons mission sending back data on dwarf planet Pluto

Posted at 9:42 PM, Jul 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-07-20 00:02:49-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- After nearly 10 years of waiting and more than 3.6 billion miles, the New Horizons space mission finally reached Pluto, and the first images of the dwarf planet were released Wednesday.

“It’s been kind of an exciting thing for those of us, especially following this, because we’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting almost a decade, and then of course it was over in a matter of hours,” said Patrick Wiggins, a local NASA ambassador.

What will we see next on Pluto? It's an event millions are following around the world. And here in Utah it's a "Pluto Palooza”, with events and viewing parties centered around the New Horizons mission.

“It’s not really over, because, although they were able to record an incredible amount of data and pictures and all that sort of stuff, the data rate that they can send it back is so slow that we figure it's going to take something on the order of a year and a half to get it all back,” Wiggins said.

Researchers said the probe's data will help us learn more about the creation of the solar system.

“Pluto is so far out there that a lot of its stuff is kind of like what’s left over from the beginning,” Wiggins said.

Towering ice mountains reveal water in great abundance, which is something researchers never expected. And the few images scientists do have are already prompting new questions, like: Why is the surface of Pluto being eroded?

Why is it red? And where are the craters?

“Looking at the surface of Pluto, we see very few, if any, craters,” Wiggins said. “And virtually every other solid body in the solar system, including Earth, has craters somewhere. And so we’re trying to figure out, well what is resurfacing them?”

In the latest data from NASA, a close-up image reveals a vast, crater-less plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old.

The frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains and in the center-left of the heart feature, which is informally named after Clyde Tombaugh--who discovered Pluto in 1930.

“One of the things about this flyby is it’s probably going to have us wondering about things that we can't even imagine at this point,” Wiggins said. “And sure enough, we buzzed past Pluto and we find these huge ice mountains, similar to the Rocky Mountains.”

Wiggins added: “It’s just exciting to know not only what we know now, but to speculate maybe about what we might know, literally, tomorrow.”

To learn more about New Horizons’ mission to Pluto, visit NASA’s page for the project.