The mountains of Pluto

NASA’s finding out big stuff from the Pluto flyby.

Icy mountains on Pluto and a new, crisp view of its largest moon, Charon, are among the several discoveries announced Wednesday by NASA’s New Horizons team, just one day after the spacecraft’s first ever Pluto flyby.

“Pluto New Horizons is a true mission of exploration showing us why basic scientific research is so important,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The mission has had nine years to build expectations about what we would see during closest approach to Pluto and Charon. Today, we get the first sampling of the scientific treasure collected during those critical moments, and I can tell you it dramatically surpasses those high expectations.”

How cool is that? It’s better than they expected.

A new close-up image of an equatorial region near the base of Pluto’s bright heart-shaped feature shows a mountain range with peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.

The mountains on Pluto likely formed no more than 100 million years ago — mere youngsters in a 4.56-billion-year-old solar system. This suggests the close-up region, which covers about one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.

Mountains on Pluto

Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.

“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” says GGI deputy team leader John Spencer at SwRI.

New knowledge! Rethinking!

Follow the New Horizons mission on Twitter and use the hashtag #PlutoFlyby to join the conversation. Live updates also will be available on the mission Facebook page.

For more information on the New Horizons mission, including fact sheets, schedules, video and all the new images, visit:


Beats a baseball game any day.


  1. says

    There’s an image of Charon also floating around, which is being ignored with all the attention Pluto is getting. Which is a shame, as Pluto and Charon are a double planet system, the only one known (basically, the two worlds orbit each other around a common center of gravity in space.) The other four satellites — Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra — also orbit this common center and not Pluto itself. And Pluto and Charon are both tidally locked to one another: there is a point on both worlds where the other one is always directly above.

  2. Bruce says

    So does this geological activity suggest a likely higher concentration of uranium and other radioactive heavy elements in the outer belt? It would be almost ironic if we found we had had to use a plutonium-fueled craft to discover that Pluto is also powered by plutonium.

  3. Turi says

    Bruce: Plutonium is human made and does not occur naturally. And any radioactive isotope with enough energy output to form such mountains would not have a halflive long enough to be still around.

  4. =8)-DX says

    @Gregory in Seattle #1

    which is being ignored with all the attention Pluto is getting

    Yes, well Pluto is a dog , a planet , of specific significance for some unknown reason interesting to a lot of people.

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