Oh, my God. It's full of mountains.
You're looking at the most detailed picture we've ever had of Pluto, thanks to NASA's New Horizons mission. The spacecraft made a close flyby — just 7,500 miles away from the dwarf planet's surface — on Tuesday.
This is just one piece of the mosaic that will eventually create an equally detailed portrait of an entire face of the dwarf planet. At a news briefing at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab on Wednesday, the NASA team estimated that the rest of the images would be ready by Friday.
But let's get back to this first delicious taste of Pluto: In this entire image, there doesn't seem to be a single impact crater. That's unexpected. Pluto and the other objects in the Kuiper Belt are as old as the solar system, and that means 4.6 billion years' worth of getting pummeled by comets. The fact that Pluto seems to be so crater-less suggests that its surface is very young. In other words, there's been geological activity recently enough to smooth out the surface quite a bit.
At the briefing, NASA scientists said it was one of the youngest surfaces they'd ever seen in the solar system.
Plus, it's full of mountains, some reaching as high as 11,000 feet. Those are probably less than 100 million years old.
That might not seem like a ton of info, but it's already upending what we thought we knew about how geology works on icy worlds. On other icy worlds, geologic activity is powered by heat created from the gravitational pull of a much larger nearby body. Pluto shouldn't have any of that going on, so something else must make active geology possible on this icy world.
While we're waiting for Pluto to show its whole face, we can get a good look at Charon:
"There is so much interesting science in this image alone," mission operations manager Alice Bowman said at the Wednesday briefing. Charon seems to be a remarkably active little world: Like Pluto, it has far fewer craters than expected.
It also has troughs and cliffs stretching for 600 miles across it, and a canyon four to six miles deep.