Tuesday, the New Horizons spacecraft thrilled us with the first high-quality shot the world had ever seen of Pluto. We were promised that there would soon be another image of even greater quality, and that's what NASA just delivered at a press conference at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.
The image above shows an incredibly zoomed-in shot of the bottom portion of Pluto. According to NASA's science mission chief, John Grunsfeld, at this resolution it would be possible to see the JHAPL were it on the planet's surface.
While there are no buildings on Pluto, thanks to the new image, the researchers were able to see that the planet does have icy mountains stretching as high as 11,000 feet. Perhaps even more significantly, because of the lack of impact craters in this area of the planet, the team is surmising that Pluto is relatively young -- probably less than 100 million years old.
In addition to the new shot of Pluto, NASA also released this image of its moon Charon.
Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman said that the shot "blew our socks off." She then went on to explain some of the features in the image.
She said the dark spot at the top of the moon -- which the team is informally calling "Mordor," after the black volcanic plane in the "Lord of the Rings" tales -- is likely a thin veneer. In the southwest area, Bowman said, a series of troughs and cliffs are visible that extend for 600 miles across the moon, and at approximately the two o'clock spot on Charon's edge, a canyon plunging four to six miles deep is also visible.
"There is so much science in this image alone," Bowman said, promising that an image that will have five times the resolution is coming soon.
A slightly smaller bit of news is that the following image was also released, of Pluto's moon Hydra.
Though it's not as captivating as the other shots being returned by New Horizons, it was enough for NASA researchers to pinpoint the moon's size, which they'd thought could have been anywhere between 20 to 100 miles across. Turns out that it's 28 x 19 miles, so "Hydra is not a planet," as Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist, joked.
New Horizons' journey to Pluto (pictures)See all photos
The other big news of the day is that NASA announced that the big heart-shaped patch of frost on Pluto, which so many of us are now familiar with, will be called Tombaugh Regio, after Clyde Tombaugh, the American astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930. The announcement drew the biggest cheers.
More data will continue streaming in from New Horizons over the next 16 months, so the discoveries are really just beginning.