Today’s blog post is from Oliver White, a postdoctoral researcher in planetary science at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. He studies the geomorphology and surface processes of planetary bodies in the outer solar system.
Looking at the surface of a planet or moon for the first time can be bewildering, particularly when confronted by a variety of terrains and landforms. This is certainly what NASA’s New Horizons team felt when we received the first close-up pictures of Pluto after the flyby in July 2015. None of us were expecting to see such a diverse range of landforms like mountains and glaciers of exotic ice on such a small, cold and distant world.
After flyby our challenge was to piece together the geological history of Pluto’s surface—that is, to determine what processes have formed and modified each terrain, and when these processes occurred relative to one another.
In order to accomplish this, planetary scientists create geological maps of the surfaces of distant bodies. The New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto at a range of several thousand miles/kilometers. As such, creating a geological map of a planetary surface like Pluto’s is more challenging than creating a map for one ...