Pluto May Not Be A Planet, But Is A Weird Place

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Every since the closest pass of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft last year, we’ve been treated to a wealth of imagery and understanding of the former planet that has, for a lack of a better word, been pretty cool.

New Horizons Spacecraft worth every penny

Ok, that might be an absurd statement. There are many that believe space exploration is a waste of time and money, I’m not a part of this group. While I understand the line of thinking in “we have too many homeless people on Earth to be spending money in space,” I just disagree. With the amount of money spent on military systems that are unwanted by the armed forces, I would rather that funding went towards other areas, not the space program.

What New Horizons has shown us is staggering especially if you consider the imagery it sends back was taken at a speed of 30,800 miles per hour. The spacecraft has given us extensive imagery of the dwarf planet’s surface, its many moons and interaction with solar winds.

So you ask what’s so cool about these images?

“A better question would be what isn’t puzzling or mysterious, because that’s a much shorter list,” said the mission’s principal investigator. “Almost everything we see on Pluto and in its atmosphere is puzzling.”

“There really wasn’t much that turned out the way we thought it would,” said Randy Gladstone of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., a co-investigator on the mission.

Pluto’s surface is a mystery

The New Horizons Spacecraft has taken extensive imagery of the (former) planet’s surface as well as that of Charon, it’s largest moon.

While Pluto is home to a wonderfully cratered surface that dates back an estimated four billion years, it also plays host to plains that are being smoothed and reshaped to this day. Active glaciers made of nitrogen seem to have been responsible for mountains of water ice extending 2-3 miles above the surface of the planet. Many of these glaciers on Pluto’s Sputnik Planum seem to have functioned like the past glaciers found on Earth.

For the most part, scientists have many sense of this imagery, it’s other pictures that still have them confounded including areas of the planet’s surface with ridges and grooves that surprised researchers and now has them calling this terrain by a new term: “washboard terrain.”

“We’ve got several hypotheses floating around on the team but there’s not a lot of convergence or consensus on how these might have formed,” said Jeff Moore of the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., who lead the geological study.

Moore and his colleagues were equally surprised by the amount of geologic activity on Charon, Pluto’s largest moon.

“We expected it would be a boring cratered ball,” he said. “Instead we can see there was a lot going on in geologically in its early history.”

This included the past presence of an ice volcano or cryovolcanism.

Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra, Pluto’s other moons, also surprised researchers and scientists with their highly reflective surfaces. If our moon’s surface was as reflective as Hydra’s, for example, it would shine 10 times brighter in the day and night sky.

Hydra is also unique in that it rotates like a top, completing a rotation in just over ten hours.

“It’s always fun to have your models validated, but it is way more fun to have them trashed,” said Gladstone “Finding out your are completely wrong is a great part of science.”

In that case, Gladstone was referring to the fact that Pluto’s atmosphere isn’t escaping the planet as fast as was thought despite the fact that Pluto has very weak gravity. This is most likely caused by a much colder upper atmosphere than was expected to be found by the teams charged with analyzing New Horizon’s data.

“In just about every discipline it was like, wow, holy cow, what’s up with that?” said Gladstone.

For the most part, the researchers expressed delight that their expectations were so wrong.

“A lot of us were inspired to go into science to puzzle out mysterious things,” Moore said. “In that case, Pluto is a gold mine.”

I concur, for those of us who cover the finds made by NASA and other space agencies, the last few years have just been damned good fun. Between New Horizons, Hubble’s continued finds, new discoveries on Mars, the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, gravitational waves and comet landings, I have a fantastic job and look forward to something new each day.

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