Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto 76 years ago. At the time, the ninth planet in our solar system (or, at least, that’s what the current protoplanet was back then) could only be observed through telescopes. Naturally, astronomers could only guess how the surface looks, what the gasses in its thin atmosphere are and so forth. But now, New Horizons sends evidence that Pluto is more amazing than we thought.
This week’s number of the Science journal featured a couple of papers that focused on Pluto and the latest discoveries made after the analysis of the data sent by New Horizons last summer.
According to the principal investigator of New Horizons, Alan Stern, the five papers that were published this week are detailed enough to offer an entirely new look upon the once mysterious planet.
The New Horizons was launched long before the scientific community decided that Pluto should be downgraded from the status of planet to that of protoplanet. And after nine and a half years spent on the road and 3 billion miles flown, the probe reached the distant celestial body last summer, on the 14th of July.
During the nine days it spent in Pluto’s orbit, the Horizons sent more than fifty gigabits of data that arrived on Earth on a span of nine days. Those were the happiest work days in the lives of the astronomers who set their focus on studying the misunderstood celestial body in the Kuiper Belt.
It seems that the surface of the icy planet is covered in a unique landscape. Its features are the result of eons of synergy between nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices and water ice. On Earth, we are accustomed to seeing only the condensation and evaporation of water.
But on Pluto, methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen get so cold that they freeze. Astronomers and chemists are still not sure the exact way in which the icy forms of all of these elements interact with each other.
Obviously, these different types of frozen gases influence the landscape of the protoplanet. But more surprises are floating above the surface of Pluto. According to the highly detailed photographs that the probe sent, the protoplanet has an atmosphere.
There are layered hazes floating on the surface who is both more compact and cooler than the scientists first presumed. Pluto is more amazing than we thought.
The most unexpected fact about the protoplanet is that methane is its main escaping gas, not nitrogen which makes up approximately 99 percent of its atmosphere.
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