NASA unveiled astonishing close-up images of Pluto this afternoon. The first high resolution pictures of the icy dwarf planet transmitted to Earth by the New Horizons probe reveal large mountains on the surface. The mountain ranges are estimated to be about 11,000 feet high and less than 100 million years old. Surprisingly, there are far less craters on Pluto than on its large moon, Charon. NASA believes that Pluto’s surface has been “smoothed over” by internal heat which keeps the rock soft, or by fresh ice. “Either [Pluto’s] internal engine continues to run, and there are active processes that are taking place,” said mission chief Alan Stern, “or those atmospheric processes are themselves covering up the geology, and covering up the craters.”
Planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine feels that the presence of both ongoing geological and atmospheric processes on Pluto is an argument for restoring the dwarf to full planet status. “This really is a planet. Why can’t we call Pluto a planet and a Kuiper belt object?” he asks. “I think we have to think of it as both.” Whatever its status, Pluto’s heart now has a name: Tombaugh Regio. NASA has decided to name the large heart shaped area of the planet after Clyde Tombaugh. “While [the heart] was a good name, we wanted to honor the discoverer,” a NASA scientist commented.