Scientists Celebrate Pluto’s Discovery With A Retrospective Of Its Greatest Images
“In 1978, our telescopes had advanced enough to determine that it had a large satellite: the giant moon Charon. Through occultations of distant stars, we determined Pluto had an atmosphere that changed over time, growing larger near perihelion. 1994 saw the first optically-corrected pictures of the Pluto-Charon system by Hubble, the first image to resolve these worlds independently.”
On this date in 1930, the first world beyond Neptune in our Solar System was discovered. Now known as Pluto, our images and understanding of it have progressed dramatically through the years. It is one of nature’s most fascinating objects, and our ever-improving sights of the world are only eclipsed by the scientific knowledge we’ve continued to glean. It’s the largest object in all the Kuiper belt with five moons of its own, and it tells a story unique in all the Universe.
Come celebrate Pluto’s discovery with a retrospective of its greatest images, and our greatest science hits (so far) today!
New Horizons To Encounter Ultima Thule This New Years, And Here’s Why It Matters
“The pre-programmed set of commands for the fly-by has already begun. If the Federal Government remains shut down, NASA TV, nasa.gov and other media will remain offline, but the New Horizons mission and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory YouTube channel will continue to broadcast the mission and its updates live.
What will we find? Will Ultima Thule have any tiny, closely-orbiting satellites within 2000 km of its surface? Will it have multiple mass centers? Will it have a uniform color and density, or will it have resolvable surface features? What will it be made out of? Will there be an atmosphere on a world this tiny at such great distances?
For the first time, we’re going to get a glimpse of the Solar System as it was before any of the planets formed. By time all is said and done, we’ll have a better answer to the cosmic question of where we came from than ever before.”
Have you ever wondered how our Solar System formed? What the material that made the rocky and icy bodies was like? Well, for the first time, we’re about to find out. By visiting Ultima Thule, a tiny object just 30 kilometers across and more than a billion miles (1.6 billion km) out past Pluto, we’re going to learn what the material that’s left over from 4.5 billion years ago is like. The story of how we’ve gotten this far is spectacular and fascinating, but the best is yet to come. If the fly-by of Pluto and its satellites showed us an example of what a large world beyond Neptune is like after an enormous collision, the Ultima Thule fly-by will show us what the non-violent, unprocessed remnants of our Solar System look like.
It’s time to find out. Come get the full story on the ultimate new years present for science!
Pluto’s Surface Changes Faster Than Earth’s, And A Subsurface Ocean Is Driving It
“These mountains aren’t static and stable, but rather are temporary water-ice mountains atop a volatile, nitrogen sea. The evidence for this comes from multiple independent observations. The mountains only appear between the hilly highlands, after the edge of a basin rim, and young plains with flowing canals. These young plains occur in Pluto’s heart-shaped lobe, which itself was caused by an enormous impact crater. Only a subsurface, liquid water ocean beneath the crust could cause the uplift we then see, leaving the nitrogen to fill it in.”
In July of 2015, NASA’s New Horizons Mission arrived at Pluto, photographing the world at the highest resolution ever, with some places getting as up-close as just 80 meters (260 feet) per pixel. Not bad for a world more than 3 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from home! What we’ve learned is breathtaking. Rather than a static, frozen world, we found one with tons of evidence for active, interior geology, as well as with a changing surface that renews itself and undergoes cycles, quite unexpectedly to many. There’s also not an enormous heart, but rather a massive, volatile-filled crater that caused Pluto to tip over at least once in its past, and may yet cause it to tip over again in the near future.
If you ever wanted to know how these distant, icy worlds come alive, there’s never been a better way to find out than in the aftermath of what New Horizons taught us!
Pluto’s Mysteriously Cool Atmosphere Might Hold The Key To Fighting Global Warming
“Global dimming could someday provide a geoengineering solution to counteract the effects of global warming, if our environmentally-minded efforts to curb our emissions fail. The discovery of the haze-temperature connection on Pluto demonstrates, for the first time, that there are actual cases out there where this type of effect can serve to reduce the worldwide temperature by far more than humanity’s emissions have increased it. On the surface, it provides a new hope for geoengineering scenarios to mitigate global warming. However, there are side effects associated with having pollutants and potentially toxic particulates in our clouds, and therefore our rainwater. We must ensure, before embarking down such a path, that the cure isn’t worse than the disease.”
When NASA’s New Horizons arrived at Pluto, it discovered a slew of wonderful surprises and sights. It found reddish-brown terrain, ices, a complex atmosphere with hazes, and a temperature surprise: it was 30 K (54 °F) cooler than we would have expected. There are only three factors that normally control a world’s temperature: its distance from the Sun, its reflectivity, and the gases present in its atmosphere. But on Pluto, the hazes play an incredible role, as a new paper out today reveals. These hazes, made of complex hydrocarbons formed from ionized gases like nitrogen and methane, actually add heat to the atmosphere but cool down the surface, leading to a dramatic difference that’s more than 10 times cooler than the heating effects of humanity’s contribution to Earth’s atmosphere. It makes you wonder if this might hold the key to fighting global warming here on Earth.
We may not be in control of our planet, but we’re at the controls. It’s up to us to make the right decisions, and learning all we can about other worlds in the Solar System is certainly helping!
Did A ‘Big Whack’ Create All Of Pluto’s Moons?
“All five worlds are inclined at less than one degree to Pluto’s equator, indicating that there was no gravitational capture. While Pluto is reddish in color, the lack of volatiles is seen in all five moons, meaning that whatever impact likely created the moons also prevented these same moons from hanging onto the lightest elements and molecules. And finally, close-up studies of the four small moons — Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra — all indicate that these bodies coalesced out of multiple, smaller bodies that later became gravitationally bound.”
When the Hubble Space Telescope discovered additional moons of Pluto, beyond Charon, it was speculated that New Horizons might find more. After all, objects more than ten times as far away as Hydra, Pluto’s outermost moon, would still be in stable orbits. Yet, with five inner moons and nothing beyond, not even diffuse rings, the spacecraft came up empty. This isn’t a disappointment, though! Instead, New Horizons’ detailed observations of all five of Pluto’s moons point towards a tremendous picture: that the entire Plutonian system owes its origin to a massive, ancient collision. The debris kicked up created the five grey moons, in stark contrast to the reddish color of Pluto, in a near-perfect 1:3:4:5:6 resonance.
Where did Pluto’s moons come from? Come learn about the ‘Big Whack’ hypothesis, and how all we’ve learned about Pluto spectacularly confirms it!