Stunning NASA image reveals Pluto’s icy plains

In the center left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old.

In the center left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old.  (NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI)

NASA has released more stunning images from the New Horizons spacecraft’s historic Pluto Flyby, providing a spectacular view of the dwarf planet’s icy terrain.

Scientists unveiled the first image of a wide plain dubbed “Sputnik Planum” (Sputnik Plain) Friday. Sputnik Planum is located in Pluto’s vast heart-shaped region, which scientists have named “Tombaugh Regio” after the scientist that discovered the dwarf planet.

Related: NASA releases first Pluto flyby images

“This is the frozen plains of Pluto,” explained Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team in a press conference at NASA headquarters in Washington. “We have clearly discovered a vast, craterless plain that has a story to tell.”

Named after the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik Planum has a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments, roughly 12 miles across, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs. Some of the troughs contain an unknown dark material.

NASA also noted the clumps of hills that appear to rise above the plain. “We suspect that the hills may have been pushed up from underneath,” said Moore. “Or they are erosion-resistant knobs that are standing out as erosion occurs.”

Elsewhere in the image, Pluto’s surface appears to be etched by fields of small pits that may have formed by a process called sublimation, in which ice turns directly from solid to gas, according to NASA.

Other images released from Tuesday’s flyby include a shot of the dwarf planet’s satellite Nix and a composite portrait of Pluto and its moon Charon.

The New Horizons spacecraft has also revealed evidence of carbon monoxide ice on Pluto, scientists said.

With its Pluto flyby successfully completed, New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern gave an update on the spacecraft during Friday’s press conference.

“The spacecraft is doing well, we are a little over 2 million miles on the far side of Pluto,” he said.

Scientists have so far received between 1 and 2 percent of New Horizons’ flyby data, a figure that will rise to between 5 and 6 percent next week, and increase during the coming months. “The data is really going to flow in the fall,” said Stern.

It will be October 2016 before all the data from the New Horizons mission is transmitted back to Earth.

NASA released its first closeup image of an area near Pluto’s equator Wednesday, which contains a range of mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet above the dwarf planet’s icy surface. The agency also unveiled an image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon, which clearly shows a swath of cliffs and troughs stretching about 600 miles across its surface.

Other pictures released this week include an image of Pluto's outermost moon Hydra and a Charon closeup.

Related: New Horizons spacecraft makes historic Pluto flyby

The spacecraft's flyby took it within 7,750 miles of Pluto's surface, roughly the distance between New York and Mumbai. 

Confirmation of the successful flyby came late Tuesday, when New Horizons contacted scientists back on Earth, 3 billion miles from Pluto.

Pluto has fascinated astronomers since 1930, when it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh using the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. Some of Tombaugh's ashes are aboard New Horizons.

New Horizons is the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far away from Earth, according to NASA. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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