Pluto reveals more secrets


Share post:

Eight months after its encounter with the New Horizons spacecraft, Pluto continues to surprise the scientists who study this distant world

Pluto reveals more secrets
Sputnik Planum, This high-resolution image captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). The bright expanse is the western lobe of the “heart,” informally called Sputnik Planum, which has been found to be rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices [Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute]

Pluto and its largest moon Charon comprise what is essentially a binary planet: two bodies of comparable size orbiting a common center of mass. The four smaller moons—Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra—are thought to have formed at the same time as Charon in the aftermath of a large impact.

“Consequently, we expected the small moons to resemble Charon,” says Mark Showalter, Senior Scientist at the SETI Institute. “Instead, we find that their surfaces are much brighter and much older than that of their large sibling.”

In addition, scientists are puzzled by the moons’ unusual rotation characteristics, as they orbit rapidly around axes that are tilted sideways.

Pluto reveals more secrets
in Enhanced Color NASA’s New Horizons captured this high-resolution
enhanced color view of Charon just before closest approach on July 14,
2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the
spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC); the
colors are processed to best highlight the variation of surface
properties across Charon. Charon’s color palette is not as diverse as
Pluto’s; most striking is the reddish north (top) polar region,
informally named Mordor Macula. Charon is 754 miles (1,214 kilometers)
across; this image resolves details

 as small as 1.8 miles (2.9
kilometers) [Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI]

“The gravitational tides from Pluto should have slowed down and re-oriented the spins of these moons by now, but they haven’t,” noted Showalter. The New Horizons team speculates that collisions from outside objects might cause the strange rotation of these moons.

New Horizons has revealed surprisingly complex geology on the surfaces of Pluto and Charon. Pluto sports a bright 1,000 km-wide plain, informally called Sputnik Planum, that is filled with volatile nitrogen and carbon monoxide ices. This feature shows no craters, which attests to ongoing geological activity. Beyond the smooth plains, there are ancient cratered terrains that display impacts that Pluto has endured over millions and billions of years. The rims and ridges are frosted with ice.

“Among the more puzzling features are the two tall mounds with central depressions that look like volcanoes,” says Ross Beyer, Senior Scientist at the SETI Institute. “Wright Mons is about 2 miles tall and 90 miles wide, and Piccard Mons is even larger, about 3.5 miles tall and 140 miles across. They could be ice volcanoes, but this will take more analysis to establish.”

Pluto reveals more secrets
Family portrait of small moons of Pluto. This composite image shows a sliver of Pluto’s large moon, Charon, and all four of Pluto’s small moons, as resolved by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on the New Horizons spacecraft. All the moons are displayed with a common intensity stretch and spatial scale (see scale bar). Charon is by far the largest of Pluto’s moons, with a diameter of 751 miles (1,212 kilometres). Nix and Hydra have comparable sizes, approximately 25 miles (40 kilometres) across in their longest dimension above. Kerberos and Styx are much smaller and have comparable sizes, roughly 6-7 miles (10-12 kilometres) across in their longest dimension. All four small moons have highly elongated shapes, a characteristic thought to be typical of small bodies in the Kuiper Belt [Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute]

New Horizons observations have also revolutionized our understanding of Pluto’s atmosphere.

“We were very surprised to observe that Pluto’s atmosphere has a multi-layered bluish haze that extends from the surface to altitudes above 200 km. The upper atmosphere is much colder than expected, which greatly reduces the rate at which it escapes from Pluto. We’ve also measured the surface pressure for the first time—about 11 microbars—and we’ve discovered that the temperature structure of the lower atmosphere varies with location,” says David Hinson, Senior Scientist at the SETI Institute.

Pluto’s partner—Charon—offers its own surprises. Its water-rich icy surface is distinctly red around its northern region; a coloration due to tholin, a molecule produced by ultraviolet irradiation of simpler compounds like methane and ethane. There are patches of ammonia ice evident on Charon as well.

Most inner moons in the solar system keep one face pointed toward their central planet; 
this animation shows that certainly isn’t the case with the small moons of Pluto, 
which behave like spinning tops. Pluto is shown at center with, in order, 
from smaller to wider orbit: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, Hydra 
[Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Mark Showalter]

“Unlike Pluto, Charon’s surface is quite old and uniform. It’s covered with water ice with low amounts of ammonia mixed in, and is not as geologically active as Pluto,” says SETI Institute scientist Cristina Dalle Ore.

A March 18 special issue of Science features articles on the continuing analysis of Pluto and its satellites. With roughly half of the New Horizons data returned to Earth so far, scientists anticipate more discoveries and a deeper understanding of this dwarf planet system.

Source: SETI Institute [March 17, 2016]



Related articles

Y-shaped Roman structure discovered in UK

A recently discovered mysterious "winged" structure in England, which in the Roman period may have been used as...

Wooden sarcophagus unearthed at Egyptian necropolis

Encased in soil, this extraordinarily delicate face emerges into the sun for the first time in thousands of...

Climate variations analyzed five million years back in time

When we talk about climate change today, we have to look at what the climate was previously like...

Ancient past challenges modern teaching in ‘cradle of mankind’

In Kenya's national museum, wide-eyed school children gaze at blackened skeletons of long gone ancestors, 1.5 million-year-old remains...

Stonehenge monument marked unification of Britain

After 10 years of archaeological investigations, researchers have concluded that Stonehenge was built as a monument to unify...

Dusting for prints from a fossil fish to understand evolutionary change

In 370 million-year-old red sandstone deposits in a highway roadcut, scientists have discovered a new species of armored...

Roman mosaic uncovered at Chedworth Roman Villa

Thrilled archaeologists have made an exciting discovery about Gloucestershire’s Roman past. The two-week project at Chedworth Roman Villa...

Isolated coral reefs far from human activity are not healthier

For the world's coral reefs, the picture keeps getting gloomier. Although it's widely assumed that both local and...