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Johns Hopkins Pluto Spacecraft Is A 'Gift That Keeps On Giving'

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- A slow, steady stream of data continues to unlock the secrets of Pluto.

Alex Demetrick reports for WJZ.

The Solar System's most distant world is linked to scientists right here in Maryland.

When the New Horizons spacecraft left Earth in 2006, its return address was the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics lab in Howard County.

This past July, the teams that built and control the spacecraft cheered its arrival at Pluto after a nine year, 3 billion mile journey.

With New Horizon's first images, the msot distant world in the Solar System came into focus.

"It's just an amazing, rich, complicated object," said Johns Hopkins scientist, Dr. Andy Cheng. "At least as interesting as any of the planets in my opinion."

And for scientists like Cheng, it's only the tip of the iceberg.

That's because data collected by the spacecraft can only be sent back to Earth in small batches.

Every week they get a little more, and with it, a little more knowledge.

The floating haze above Pluto is one example.

"That was also a tremendous surprise," said Cheng. "No one expected there would be that much haze in the first place."

And in the latest images, they found chaos terrain.

"Chaos terrain is surface that's been broken up and had been jumbled up in disarray so the pieces moved around and tilted," said Cheng.

There's a sign that there's liquid beneath the surface, but not water.

"The liquid or the fluid could be nitrogen on Pluto at Pluto's temperature," said Cheng.

Ninety-five percent of the Pluto data is still aboard the spacecraft, and it will take a year to download, but that's not generating impatience.

"If you could imagine you're a kida nad you're getting your Christmas presents over the next year, how would you feel?" said Cheng.

While the New Horizons spacecraft continues to speed away from Pluto at nearly 37,000 mph, scientists hope to use it to study even more distant objects.

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