Pluto is a Dwarf planet, with 5 moons, that lies beyond Neptune in the Kuiper Belt. It was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh who worked at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona from 1929 to 1945.
It is 4.67 billion miles from earth and it takes 247.94 years to orbit the Sun. It takes Pluto 6.387 Earth days to rotate once on it’s axis. NASA launched New Horizons, an interplanetary space probe in 2006 for it’s nine year voyage to Pluto.
Actually it will just pass by, 10 times faster than a speeding bullet, taking thousands of photos and running a multitude of tests. New Horizons was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station by an Atlas V rocket, the fastest man-made object ever launched from Earth. Recording speeds as much as 52,000 mph on it’s way, just days before the pass by, we received a distress call from the probe that had encountered a software problem and entered safe mode.
It took three days but the problem was resolved in time for the Pluto pass by. New Horizons flew 7750 miles from the surface of Pluto as it sped by taking its photos. The surface was a beautiful series of red and white, including snow capped ice mountains the size of the Rockies, craters of every size and deep canyons.
The largest moon is Charon that co-rotates with Pluto, like a barbell. The other four are Hydra, Kerberos, Nix and Styx. You can see a huge, 2000 km across, crater rim on Pluto where something very large collided with it and most likely formed these 5 moon bodies.
New Horizons “Alice”, an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer, determined that that the surface of this crater, dubbed “The Heart”, is covered with soft nitrogen ice. Convection cells across “The Heart” show that the planet must be heated from the inside, like Earth.
The scientists even discovered a volcano with ice that had flowed like lava with the red coloring from ammonia. Since Pluto likely has an internal heat source this could mean water. A gas hydrate, a burning snow, methane gas coming off the ice could explain the heat.
Back in 1988, they discovered that Pluto had an atmosphere which was proven by New Horizons. The probe analyzed a Nitrogen gas, 20 km between layers around the planet.
Tiny amounts of methane and carbon monoxide are broken apart by the sun rays before reforming into soot and settling into layers. We have been able to recreate Pluto’s atmosphere in a lab here on Earth since.
We set an environment at -270 degrees, simulated the Sun rays which formed tiny grains of dust that are a reddish brown that fall on the surface like rain, explaining the color of Pluto. They also believe that organic material has been making its way to the surface, through the cracks, forming the darker red areas seen.
The scientists believe that there is a possibility of some sort of life beneath the surface. Pluto is a place of unimaginable complexity with such mysteries as a churning nitrogen glacier, The Heart. Another mission is being planned for a probe to orbit the Dwarf planet this time. To the Roman’s Pluto was the God of the afterlife but it could be the last place you would have guessed there would be life.