The First High-Resolution Images from Pluto Have Arrived, and They Bring a Major Mystery: Where Are the Impact Craters?

pluto-observations-through-the-years

As new pics from the Pluto/Charon system become available, you can’t beat the image gallery at the New Horizons portion of NASA’s website to keep up with them, which is where I found this .gif file showing images of Pluto itself throughout the years. It culminates in the latest, and most detailed, image of any part of Pluto — a small portion of its surface. To see more of the latest pics, as they are released, I refer you to that web-page. NASA plans to keep it updated with the latest from the Pluto/Charon system, for months to come, as new images are transmitted, received, and processed.

The big surprise today is not the “heart of Pluto” that’s gotten so much press this week, but something newly discovered (and completely unexpected) with the latest small batch of new pics: on both Pluto and Charon, they can’t find a single impact crater. Not one. And that is just flat-out weird. Here, see for yourself (same image source): unexpected ice mountains, check; unexpectedly-smooth plains, check; craters — hey, the craters are missing!

nh-plutosurface

According to everything we know, impact craters should be there. The ice mountains and numerous plains are mysteries, also, but it is the lack of craters which really has scientists puzzled this morning. Everyone expected to see lots of impact craters, myself included. Small worlds, so far from the sun, should have frozen internally long ago, based on present models, making them geologically dead, and therefore unable to “erase” impact craters (seen on dozens of other planets, dwarf planets, satellites, and asteroids) with surface-altering geological activity. This mass-erasure-of-craters happens on a only a few other solid bodies in the solar system, such as Earth, and Jupiter’s moon Io — both larger, and much warmer, than anything in the Pluto/Charon system. Some scientists are already going public with conjectures for the energy source needed to keep Pluto and Charon crater-free. However, I have yet to read any such conjecture which I find convincing, which is why I am not including them in this post. (Such guesswork is easy to find, though, here, among other places.)

On the other hand, the scientific community has had very little time, yet, to explain this new puzzle; there might be a convincing explanation out there by this time next week — or this could persist, as one of many mysteries in astronomy, for decades. At this point, it is too early to even venture a guess regarding when, if ever, this mystery will be solved.

About RobertLovesPi

I go by RobertLovesPi on-line, and am interested in many things. Welcome to my little slice of the Internet. The viewpoints and opinions expressed on this website are my own. They should not be confused with the views of my employer, nor any other organization, nor institution, of any kind.
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2 Responses to The First High-Resolution Images from Pluto Have Arrived, and They Bring a Major Mystery: Where Are the Impact Craters?

  1. Here’s my hypothesis on the absence of impact craters: Since Pluto’s orbit is so elliptical (one of the reasons why it has been declassified as a “planet”), the solar energy it receives at perihelion might be sufficient to cause some sublimation of its surface chemistry (nitrogen, methane, carbon monoxide) which would quickly refreeze in the atmosphere and fall back as “snow.” Over time, even a weak effect of this process could obscure Pluto’s (and its moons’) craters. However, I would still expect to see some evidence of recent cratering considering Pluto’s position in the Kuiper Belt.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. teachezwell says:

    Interesting points.

    Liked by 1 person

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