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MIT researcher surprised by Pluto’s newly revealed features

Scientists said they found vast frozen plains spanning a couple hundred miles in the heart-shaped area of Pluto, next door to its big, rugged mountains of water ice.
Scientists said they found vast frozen plains spanning a couple hundred miles in the heart-shaped area of Pluto, next door to its big, rugged mountains of water ice. (NASA via AP)

For researchers like MIT professor Richard Binzel, the images of Pluto’s surface unveiled on Wednesday are a game-changer in researching the dwarf planet.

New Horizons, a NASA spacecraft that has traveled 3 billion miles since leaving Earth 9 1/2 years ago, began sending data back to Earth this week, shifting the direction of Binzel’s research.

“We had expected to be surprised by what Pluto had to offer, but this is beyond anything we imagined,” he said.

For the past decade, Binzel has been working with a research team at NASA’s Mission Control Center in Maryland, where they have created hypotheses about the layout of Pluto. However, the diversity of Pluto’s icy and mountainous regions have surprised the researchers, and forced them to change the way they think about the dwarf planet, Binzel said.

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For example, he said, many of the researchers expected to see the ice smoothly distributed from the north end of Pluto to the south, but the data have revealed sharp ice boundaries between bright white regions and dark opaque ones. This contrast has changed the way Binzel and the other researchers visualize Pluto’s features.

“We tried to be very simple and straightforward in our models, knowing that Pluto would have complexities that we had to see in order to reach understanding,” Binzel said. “But we didn’t imagine it could possibly be as complex as the New Horizons data has revealed.”

The data captured by the spacecraft will be returning to Earth over the next 16 months, a period of time Binzel said will go “very quickly” in comparison to the 9 1/2-year voyage.

“We have a hard time finding words to describe our amazement,” Binzel said. “Amazing is the word that keeps coming up over and over again, and it seems so inadequate. To us, the biggest thing is being able to share this story. We are thrilled by the interest worldwide that Pluto is attracting.”

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Binzel added that he hopes the New Horizons data will inspire future scientists and engineers to enter the field, breaking the gender barriers that existed in the era of the Apollo program that put the first humans on the moon.

“It’s really the new way of doing science, where the gender roles are just evaporating, and it’s just people working together,” he said. “It’s a great new era of space exploration and inclusiveness.”


Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.