New Horizons Yields More Questions About Pluto Than Answers

Last year, humanity achieved an important milestone. The New Horizons probe flew by Pluto in history's closest approach to the dwarf planet in the outermost zone of our solar system. The initial batch of photos were already revealing but that is almost literally just the tip of the iceberg. Scientists involved in the New Horizons studies have just published a paper that reveals even more findings gathered since the probe's first data dump, painting a picture of a planet that is more mysterious than we could have imagined.

Most of us will probably picture Pluto as a cold, boring, dead, and icy planet, and you'd be right in only two of those. Sure it is cold and sure it has ice. Actually, ices. Plural. Pluto apparently has all kinds of ice. Water ice, carbon dioxide, ice, methane ice, nitrogen ices (yes, plural), and such. Did you imagine Pluto to be dark and blue? Think again. There's a crater covered in red that might be methane ice baked by radiation.

The variety of ice found on and in the planet could account for Pluto's surprisingly dynamic and out of this world geology. These ices melt and freeze at different temperatures, causing all kinds of weird formations when they clash and crash together. How complex is Pluto's surface, you ask? It is perhaps best to quote Bill McKinnon, deputy lead of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team.

"Pluto has possible cryovolcanoes, cratered plains, crater-free frozen planes, rugged plains, etched and pitted canyons, glacial erosion, glacially suspended terrain, upright blades of ice, mountain ridges, motion flow-lines around obstacles, wall-to-wall craters covered with some red material that may be methane ice baked by radiation, broken assemblages of water-ice crust assembled together like logs in a jam, big bands of land that are tracked with what looks like the arms of saguaro cactus."

New Horizon's data has challenged and changed many of the existing models scientists have of Pluto, like an atmosphere that is 100 times thinner than expected. The data has also shed some light on its moons. Charon, for example, is theorized to have had, at one point, a vast non-water liquid ocean that froze and punctured the moon's surface, flooding away half of the planet's craters, ending up with an almost two-faced surface, half smooth, half jagged.

Suffice it to say, Pluto has turned out to be an exciting planet filled with more mysteries and puzzles that could take scientists years to analyze and speculate about. It's almost too bad that we've practically demoted its place among the planets.

VIA: Popular Mechanics