The first topographic maps of Pluto and its moon Charon, formally validated now, have been released in new scientific papers in the Icarus journal.
To do the mapping, scientists from the NASA’s New Horizons mission, which orbited Pluto and Charon in July 2015, headed by Paul Schenk, a Senior Research Scientist at the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), logged all the imagery collected from the Long-Range Imaging Camera (LORRI) and the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). These new Pluto and Charon charts were carefully generated over a period of two years because the New Horizons mission sent the data slowly back to Earth.
“This was one of the most complex but exciting planetary mapping projects I have had the pleasure to participate in. Every time new images appeared, something new was revealed,” explained Schenk. “The first thing we had to do was to understand the behavior of two different imaging systems to get reliable topographic maps,” he added.
Topographic maps of Pluto and Charon revealed essential characteristics
The new topographic maps show large-scale features that are not evident on the global mosaic map. The ice sheet inside the 1,000-km-wide Sputnik Planitia is on a 2.5-km-deep, while the peripheral rims of the ice sheet are 3.5 km lower than the average altitude of Pluto.
Although the majority of the ice sheet is mostly flat, the outer borders of Sputnik Planitia represent the lowermost regions of Pluto known to man, all of which are only noticeable on the stereo images and the elevation maps.
The topographic maps of Pluto also indicate the presence of a broad and eroded crest and a valleys system of over 3000 kilometers in length, with a north-south tendency close to the western border of Sputnik Planitia. This trait is the largest known on Pluto and suggests that there was a widespread crack in the distant past.
“The degree of topographic resolution of Pluto in the hemisphere that we explore with New Horizons is amazing, I can’t wait to see the other side of Pluto revealed in detail by a future mission that orbits the planet,” explained Alan Stern from the NASA’s New Horizons mission team.