Pluto continues to surprise and make its way to the front of the science pages with a shots from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft giving us more information about its smallest moon.
Not a planet(?), but still has moons
In 2006, scientists decided that Pluto no longer should be deemed a planet destroying all that I knew growing up as a product of the 1970s (Revolve In Peace..RIP Pluto). Instead, Pluto was relegated to dwarf planet status by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by US astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who was using the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. However, almost immediately it’s planetary status was debated by scientists. Discussion led scientists to question if Pluto might not simply be the first of a “resident” of the Kuiper Belt, a population of small, icy bodies outside the orbit of Neptune.
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Long story short, Pluto was simply deemed to be a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) following the discovery of others: Quaoar (announced in 2002), Sedna (2003) and Eris (2005), and the discussion was off and running.
Eris, also seemed to be larger than Pluto thus the rethink led by Prof. Mike Brown who would later call himself “the man who killed Pluto” with Neil deGrasse Tyson joking that he had “driven the getaway car.”
Anyways, you know what happened next.
On to Pluto’s Moons
While I don’t love giving other writers credit, It’s my opinion that Rachel Feltman of the Washington Post said it best on Friday when she wrote, “Now that the baby is here, Pluto’s family portrait is complete.”
She was referring to the recent photo’s taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft of Pluto’s smallest moon Kerberos. I say recent, but let’s remember that New Horizons is presently well over three billion miles away from Earth and they take a little while to get here. Multiply your frustrations uploading you first Flickr photos by a really large number and you’re almost there.
The photos are pretty, more reminiscent of something that might chase Steve McQueen out of a movie theater in the late 1950s. That “blobiness” is both a result of Kerberos’ reflective surface as well as its dual lobe shape that scientists believe might be the result of a coming together of two separate objects.
From Pluto’s moons further into the Kuiper Belt
Kerberos has reflective qualities which suggest it is covered in a layer of water ice. Scientists had previously thought that it was covered in dark material. “Our predictions were nearly spot-on for the other small moons, but not for Kerberos,” said New Horizons co-investigator Mark Showalter, of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., in the statement.
Pluto’s moons have garnered an increasing amount of attention of late, with many focusing on Charon, whose 751 mile diameter makes it the largest by far. Nix and Hydra both measure around 25 miles across, while Kerberos and Styx are about 6-7 miles across.
The four small moons are all oval shaped, which is thought to be common among small bodies in the Kuiper Belt. The next port of call for New Horizons is an object known as 2014 MU69, which is around a billion miles past Pluto.
In order to reach its target, a series of maneuvers were undertaken on Thursday, changing the spacecraft’s trajectory by around 187 feet per second. If all goes to plan New Horizons will make a flyby of MU69 on 1 January 2019.