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Some of the Coolest Things We’ve Learned So Far from the New Horizons Pluto Mission

Spoiler alert: it doesn't look like this guy.


New Horizon is about to do the first flyby of Pluto. It is a historic moment for the Kuiper belt object that was discovered over eighty years ago.  Engineers placed the ashes of Pluto’s discover, Clyde W. Tombaugh, on board New Horizon. (His family donated the remains.) Here’s some of the coolest stuff we know so far.

Because of New Horizon, we now have a much better sense of Pluto’s geography. Scientists have confirmed that Pluto does have ice caps. Whereas before it was just a good educated guess, given how far away Pluto was from the Sun, now there are pictures. We also now have proof that Pluto has at least one large impact crater and cliffs. NASA insiders are predicting that the best image of Pluto will be released to the public tomorrow.

Additionally, there are no sign of rings, yet. It is possible that the rings do not just encompass Pluto, but Pluto and Charon, or even Pluto, Charon, and Pluto’s four other moons. The lack of rings is odd, because most planets should have rings. (The inner, rocky planets of our solar system do not have rings because the Sun blasts them away.)

New Horizon has also collected more information about Charon, which is exciting because the data it collects might make it easier to decide if Charon should still be classified as Pluto’s moon. In fact, Pluto and Charon are fairly close to each other in size, and rotate around a fixed point in space. Because of this, many scientists suspect that Pluto and Charon are more like a binary planet system.

Images indicate that Charon has a large chasm too. Scientists estimate this geological formation is longer and deeper than the Grand Canyon. Scientists are intrigued by the appearance of this chasm, with some theorizing that the initial impact melted the ice on the crater’s floor. Other scientists theorize that most of Charon’s surface is covered in a reflective ice, but below that there’s a different kind of material.

Do not worry, New Horizon has more cool things to explore after the flyby. Among other things, New Horizon will eventually leave the solar system. It has sensors to measure plasma, which will help determine the edge of the solar system.

Courtney Hilden is a poetry reader and series editor for Bayou Magazine. She has been published numerous places, including Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media.

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