Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Newest Photo of Pluto Stuns Scientists

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Newest Photo of Pluto Stuns Scientists

Article excerpt

The New Horizons spacecraft is currently cruising almost 250 million miles beyond Pluto. But that doesn't stop it from continuing to beam breathtaking images back to Earth from its flyby of the dwarf planet, nearly a year ago.

NASA just released the latest of these images, a high resolution look at Pluto's surface that shows much more diverse terrain than scientists anticipated.

There's a sharp dividing line where the smooth, flat ice plains in the southern part of Pluto's "heart" abut dark, rugged, mountainous highlands that rise 1.5 miles above the plains.

"It's like two pieces of a puzzle that are fit together in a way you would never expect to find," Richard Binzel, professor of planetary science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., tells The Christian Science Monitor. "It's very hard to understand how you can get such a sharp, contrasting line on a planetary world, especially one we thought may have been cold and inactive. It seems, in fact, Pluto is alive."

The absence of impact craters on the icy plains, dubbed Sputnik Planum, suggests that they are very young, at least in the scale of Pluto's existence. Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, estimates that they were created in the last few million years, which make up just a fraction of one percent of Pluto's existence.

But the dark, mountainous region bordering the plains, nicknamed Krun Macula after the Mandaean lord of the underworld, dates back billions of years, to Pluto's youth, Dr. Stern says in a phone interview with the Monitor.

Why the sharp dividing line?

"It's completely perplexing, and that's part of what's awesome about it," Stern says. "As a scientist you like to be stumped because it's telling us more important new things about the way small planets work than we could have guessed before the flyby. …

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