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Pluto’s Big Discoveries

March 23, 2016

A trickle of data from the New Horizons spacecraft is building into a flood of new findings.



Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)


Big discoveries about a small protoplanet. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Data captured by the New Horizons spacecraft that flew by Pluto last summer is still making its way slowly back to Earth, according to Johns Hopkins planetary scientist Hal Weaver.

HAL WEAVER (Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University):

It’s true that the spacecraft is now way past Pluto, but the data are now just coming in now. This is what we went there for, and that’s the most exciting part of the mission for the science team.


Now the first major studies are being published, including five new papers in the journal Science. They include the discovery that Pluto has a hazy atmosphere and slowly flowing nitrogen ice on its surface, and that some of its moons have water ice and incredibly fast, eccentric orbits. Weaver says they won’t receive all of the spacecraft’s data until the end of October, and it will be years before they’ve squeezed all the science they can from it. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.