One year after the New Horizons spacecraft had its flyby with dwarf planet Pluto, an MIT scientist said the mission has unmasked the celestial body.
"We learned that Pluto is alive," said Richard Binzel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has worked on the project since its inception. "It's an active planet. There are processes going on. Its surface is constantly changing. There are flowing glaciers of frozen nitrogen on Pluto. There are winds on Pluto. There may even be signs of an ancient volcano on Pluto, a volcano of ice."
Binzel said scientists are happy with NASA's extension of their mission this month, allowing the spacecraft to explore the Kuiper Belt, a region of the solar system that mainly consists of small bodies and remnants from the solar system's formation. Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt.
New Horizons came within 7,767 miles of Pluto's surface on July 14, 2015, to take amazing photos and transmit them back to earth.
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
Researchers are still trying to understand features, such as craters and mountains, seen on the surface of Pluto, Binzel said.
"Things happen in two phases. The first is the discovery phase, where everything is new and everything is a mystery — and in the past year we've decided to try to understand what we're seeing," Binzel said. "We evolve from the bewilderment of mystery to the long, slow process of understanding."
Binzel said he is trying to understand "what kind of seasons does Pluto have and how do seasons work on Pluto. ... It looks like Pluto has some very long-term seasons that go over cycles of millions of years."
The professor added that scientists "are just scratching the surface at understanding the diverse features we see on Pluto."
The work for the 2015 mission began over 20 years ago, according to Binzel.
"In the late 1980s we reached a point in our studies of Pluto where we were stuck. We had more questions than answers, and we realized there was no way to find out what that part of the solar system was like unless we went there," Binzel said. "We were young and fearless and determined, and 26 years later it came true."
Binzel said he and his colleagues were in near disbelief at how far their work had come.
"The culmination of so much work and effort and dreams is hard to describe," Binzel said. "I could see it in the faces of my colleagues who I had worked side by side with for more than two decades and seeing their joy was my personal highlight."
Olivia Quintana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @oliviasquintana.