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New Horizons Finds Frozen Plains in Pluto’s Heart-Shaped Feature

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(WASHINGTON) — New Horizons captured a stunning image that was released Friday showing frozen plains in Pluto’s heart-shaped feature — giving scientists a closer look at the complex geological terrain of the dwarf planet.

“I’m a little biased but I think the solar system saved the best for last,” Alan Stern, New Horizons principle investigator said at a news conference this afternoon.

The craterless plain, believed to be less than 100 million years old, is located north of Pluto’s icy mountain range and in the center-left of its now infamous heart-shaped feature.

The area, named Sputnik Planum, looks similar to frozen mud cracks on Earth and has various areas that are irregularly shaped while other parts include dark streaks several miles long. It’s believed the area is still being shaped by geologic processes.

“This scene is neighboring the mountain ranges you saw a couple days ago,” Stern said. “There are stark contrasts on Pluto in terms of the geology.”

The finding is just the start of years of discoveries to come about the dwarf planet. NASA said New Horizons is now two million miles on the night side of Pluto and is busy taking a look back at the planet and gathering more information.

The piano-sized probe is also devoting some of its time sending the bonanza of information it has collected back to Earth — a process that is no small feat. Since Tuesday’s flyby, NASA said it has so far received just 1 to 2 percent of the estimated total information on board New Horizons. By next week, NASA expects to have as much as 5 percent of the data reach Earth.

As for Pluto’s atmosphere, NASA’s atmospheres team found Pluto’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere was easily detectable as far as 1,000 miles from the surface of the dwarf planet.

“We know the atmosphere is nitrogen and we suspect its escaping because of the weaker gravity on Pluto,” Fran Bagenal, a New Horizons co-investigator, said at a news conference today.

As the nitrogen escapes, she said it is picked up by a solar wind, creating an ion tail behind Pluto that continues to be carried away from the dwarf planet and lost to space.

New Horizons will spend the next 16 months transmitting data from back to Earth from its encounter with Pluto, with the information being categorized by low, medium and high priority. It will likely make its last transmission in October or November of next year, officials said.

NASA expects the mission will yield plenty more exciting images, discoveries and science papers to come in the future and plans to keep the public updated.

New Horizons loses about a few watts of power each year, according to NASA, but is estimated to have as much as 20 years left in its life expectancy.

Beside transferring data, the spacecraft will now head deeper into the Kuiper Belt, an area beyond Pluto’s orbit of the Sun that is the largest structure in the planetary system, with more than 100,000 miniature worlds ripe for exploration, according to NASA.

After the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons would then have the chance to go further, according to Stern, “to explore the deep reaches of the heliosphere,” an area extending far beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Launched in January 2006 on a 3 billion mile journey to Pluto, New Horizons “phoned home” on Tuesday night, indicating that it had successfully navigated just 7,700 miles from the dwarf planet Tuesday morning. It later sent back the first high-resolution images of Pluto’s surface.

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