Research Article

The geology of Pluto and Charon through the eyes of New Horizons

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Science  18 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6279, pp. 1284-1293
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad7055

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New Horizons unveils the Pluto system

In July 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft flew through the Pluto system at high speed, humanity's first close look at this enigmatic system on the outskirts of our solar system. In a series of papers, the New Horizons team present their analysis of the encounter data downloaded so far: Moore et al. present the complex surface features and geology of Pluto and its large moon Charon, including evidence of tectonics, glacial flow, and possible cryovolcanoes. Grundy et al. analyzed the colors and chemical compositions of their surfaces, with ices of H2O, CH4, CO, N2, and NH3 and a reddish material which may be tholins. Gladstone et al. investigated the atmosphere of Pluto, which is colder and more compact than expected and hosts numerous extensive layers of haze. Weaver et al. examined the small moons Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, which are irregularly shaped, fast-rotating, and have bright surfaces. Bagenal et al. report how Pluto modifies its space environment, including interactions with the solar wind and a lack of dust in the system. Together, these findings massively increase our understanding of the bodies in the outer solar system. They will underpin the analysis of New Horizons data, which will continue for years to come.

Science, this issue pp. 1284, 10.1126/science.aad9189, 10.1126/science.aad8866, 10.1126/science.aae0030, & 10.1126/science.aad9045


NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has revealed the complex geology of Pluto and Charon. Pluto’s encounter hemisphere shows ongoing surface geological activity centered on a vast basin containing a thick layer of volatile ices that appears to be involved in convection and advection, with a crater retention age no greater than ~10 million years. Surrounding terrains show active glacial flow, apparent transport and rotation of large buoyant water-ice crustal blocks, and pitting, the latter likely caused by sublimation erosion and/or collapse. More enigmatic features include tall mounds with central depressions that are conceivably cryovolcanic and ridges with complex bladed textures. Pluto also has ancient cratered terrains up to ~4 billion years old that are extensionally faulted and extensively mantled and perhaps eroded by glacial or other processes. Charon does not appear to be currently active, but experienced major extensional tectonism and resurfacing (probably cryovolcanic) nearly 4 billion years ago. Impact crater populations on Pluto and Charon are not consistent with the steepest impactor size-frequency distributions proposed for the Kuiper belt.

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