Study Finds That Pluto’s Atmosphere Is Freezing And Could Disappear

Pluto's Atmosphere
Image source: YouTube Video Screenshot

Scientists didn’t know much about Pluto until NASA’s probe New Horizons passed by and unveiled the majority of its secrets. Pluto lost its status as a planet in 2006 and has since been classified as a dwarf planet with an atmosphere. Now a group of researchers found that Pluto’s atmosphere has been freezing and could completely disappear by 2030.

The group of scientists studying Pluto’s atmosphere used a technique called ground-based occultations which can monitor seasonal changes on Pluto’s surface pressure. An occultation is an event such as when a large celestial body such as a moon blocks the light coming to a planet from a distant object such as a star, working in a similar way to solar eclipses. Researchers were observing how Pluto blocks light from distant stars, including the sun, and used this information to measure pressure, temperature and density in the atmosphere.

“We were able to construct seasonal models of Pluto and how it responds to changes with the amount of sunlight it receives as it orbits the Sun,” Andrew Cole of the University of Tasmania said in a statement. “What we found was when Pluto is farthest away from the Sun, and during its winter in the northern hemisphere, nitrogen freezes out of the atmosphere.”

Being the farthest explored dwarf planet from the sun, Pluto takes a long time to make a full orbit, every 248 years. Being so far away has many flaws and one of them is that the surface temperature on Pluto is already more than frigid, measuring between minus 378 and minus 396 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 228  to minus 238 degrees Celsius). Pluto’s atmosphere consists of different elements including mainly nitrogen, as well as methane and carbon monoxide in traces.

The research on Pluto’s atmosphere is showing that it has changed over the past thirty years. Researchers created different models of the dwarf planet and found that the vast majority of Pluto’s atmosphere will freeze outwards until there’s no atmosphere left.

“The atmospheric pressure has tripled over the past three decades, but as the dwarf planet orbits, our modeling showed that most of the atmosphere would condense out to almost nothing left.” Cole added. “What our predictions show is that by 2030 the atmosphere is going to frost out and vanish around the whole planet.”

If this is the case, Pluto will appear different to us. If the nitrogen atmosphere on the planet freezes, it would reflect even more sunlight so that Pluto would appear much brighter in the night sky. Researchers add that the planet’s surface will also look different. Researchers suggest that if this is the case, the red surface New Horizon caught with its camera in 2015 could be hidden under the layers of nitrogen frost and ice. The study will be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, but everyone interested can see it on the free pre-print website arXiv.