The general assumption had been that objects in the Kuiper Belt should be geologically inactive because they are so cold. But the first New Horizons views revealed expansive, smooth plains in some areas that appear to be no more than 100 million years old, quite youthful in geologic terms. The images also showed a range of 11,000-foot-high ice mountains, flowing glaciers of frozen nitrogen and a pervasive coating of organic compounds that has painted the whole world pinkish-red.
“We now have an isolated, small planet that is showing activity after 4.5 billion years,” Stern told the crowd at the Applied Physics Lab. “It will send a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing board to figure out how that works.”
Even more shocking, Pluto’s biggest moon, Charon — just 751 miles wide — also shows a dynamic, rifted surface, with a dark smudge at the north pole, possibly methane captured from Pluto’s thin atmosphere. At the same time, Charon’s colors and overall geology look drastically different from Pluto’s, for reasons only vaguely understood. “It just blew our socks off!” exclaimed Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist for New Horizons, to another round of applause.
The dispatches from New Horizons are still coming in long after the crowd departed. The probe’s modest data-transmission rate means that the full Pluto data set will not reach Earth until October 2016. All of the eye-popping discoveries reported during the flyby events were based on just the first 2 percent of data returned. While the scientific lessons of New Horizons are just starting to sink in, the main message has already come through loud and clear. The worlds of the Kuiper Belt are lively and diverse, unlike anything humans have seen before.
But Stern had one last surprise that night. “I’ve been secretly working on a Pluto lander,” he blurted out after unveiling the initial New Horizons images. People laughed good-naturedly, but then he cut them off: “I’m serious.”
And why not? Now that we’ve caught up with Pluto, we have a sense of just how much more adventure and excitement awaits out there. The only question is, do we have the resolve to continue the race.