September 18, 2019

23.04.11: A Plutonian Atmosphere.

As the New Horizons spacecraft approaches the distant world, Pluto is beginning to seem more planet-like by the day. Recently a team including astrobiologist Jane Graves used time on telescopes perched atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea complex to reveal an intriguing constituent of the Plutonian atmosphere; carbon monoxide.

Add that to the known mixture of methane gas identified in 1988 during an occultation by Pluto of a distant star, and the world starts to look like an energetic place. Pluto has been observed since its discovery in 1930 only a short time in the duration of its 248-year orbit. Said orbit is highly elliptical, and the tiny world passed perihelion at 67 A.U. in 1989 and is now headed outbound; a set of climatic changes, including perhaps the freezing out of its atmosphere was expected to occur. This was also one of the reasons that scientists wanted to get the New Horizons probe to Pluto within the next decade. But wait, the tale gets stranger; scientists also calculate that the tenuous atmosphere now extends to a height of 3,000 kilometers, a quarter of the distance to Pluto’s large moon Charon… what’s heating the place up and causing the atmosphere to expand? Is it variations in the solar cycle, or gravitational tides generated between the Pluto and Charon system? Clearly, New Horizons will have some questions to answer as it whizzes by in July 2015…us bloggers are also awaiting real Pluto-Charon images, so we can stop running the same blurry pics and/or artists conceptions; will Pluto appear dynamic and active or cratered and lifeless? Stay tuned!

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