New Horizons discovers second, smaller mountain range in Pluto's 'heart'

Scientists estimate frozen peaks are one-half mile to one mile high, about the same height as the U.S. Appalachian Mountains

Image caption: A newly discovered mountain range lies near the southwestern margin of Pluto’s heart-shaped Tombaugh Region, situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain.

Image credit: NASA / JHUAPL / Southwest Research Institute

Pluto's icy mountains have company. NASA's New Horizons mission has discovered a new, apparently less lofty mountain range on the lower-left edge of Pluto's best known feature, the bright, heart-shaped region named Tombaugh Region.

These newly discovered frozen peaks are estimated to be one-half mile to one mile high, about the same height as the Appalachian Mountains in the United States. The Norgay Mountains discovered by New Horizons on July 15 more closely approximate the height of the taller Rocky Mountains in the western U.S.

The new range is just west of the region within Pluto's heart called Sputnik Plain and some 68 miles northwest of the Norgay Mountains. This newest image further illustrates the remarkably well-defined topography along the western edge of Tombaugh Region.

"There is a pronounced difference in texture between the younger, frozen plains to the east and the dark, heavily-cratered terrain to the west," said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics, and Imaging Team at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. "There's a complex interaction going on between the bright and the dark materials that we're still trying to understand."

While Sputnik Plain is believed to be relatively young in geological terms—perhaps less than 100 million years old—the darker region probably dates back billions of years. Moore notes that the bright, sediment-like material appears to be filling in old craters.

This image was acquired by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles and sent back to Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile across are visible. The names of features on Pluto have all been given on an informal basis by the New Horizons team.

New Horizons is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Southwest Research Institute leads the mission, science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning.