The New Horizons spacecraft finally reached Pluto this week after 9 years travelling through space and at closest approach was at just 12,500 km away from the dwarf planet’s surface. This is a key moment in the history of space exploration, as it now means that all of the large planetary bodies in our Solar System have been visited by a space probe, an endeavor which began more than 50 years ago.
New Horizons has sent a series of high-resolution (down to the km scale) images of the surface of Pluto and its moon Charon allowing us to see these icy worlds in detail. These images have revealed that Pluto is 80 km wider than we originally thought, and that the area of bright mass is actually a distinctive heart shaped crater. The New Horizons spacecraft sent the first data package back to the earth at around midnight on the 15th of July, a message that took 4 hours and 25 minutes to travel the 4.7 billion km across the solar system. The scientists at NASA are overjoyed at the success of the mission, as the spacecraft was at risk of being destroyed by the icy debris surrounding Pluto.
One surprising result is that there are a relative lack of impact craters on Pluto, suggesting that the surface is geologically young and tectonically active meaning that Pluto is more complex than was previously thought, and that geologists are now trying to investigate the origins of this activity. Getting to Pluto and sending back data has not been a fast process- as well as taking 9 years get there, all of the data collected will take over 16 months to transmit back to the Earth. Scientists will scrutinize and interpret these images to try and understand the composition and processes occurring on the dwarf planet