Tag Archives: pluto

Astronomers Think They’ve Discovered A Neptune-Sized Ninth Planet Beyond Pluto

In 2005, the discovery of the dwarf planet Eris by Caltech astronomer Mike Brown and his colleagues ultimately led to Pluto being demoted as the ninth planet of the Solar System a year later. Brown took to his status as the man who relegated Pluto with aplomb; his handle on Twitter is, rather appropriately, plutokiller.

But new research, published today in The Astronomical JournalbyBrown and his colleague Konstantin Batygin, is sure to cause a stir. He is proposing the existence of a real ninth planet of the Solar System, dubbed Planet Nine and ostentatiously nicknamed Phattie,that would be almost the size of Neptune.

The planet has not been observed; rather, the astronomers have put together a mathematical model that infers its existence. We have a gravitational signature of a giant planet in the outer Solar System, Batygin told Nature. But interestingly, they say that some of the most powerful telescopes on Earth at the moment may be capable of spotting it and it may already be hiding in existing images.

Evidence for Planet Nine comes from the observed motion of objects in the Kuiper Belt, a vast region of comets beyond the orbit of Pluto. According to the paper, it suggests there is a planet ten times the mass of Earth on a hugely elliptical orbit around the Sun, completing an orbit every 10,000 to 20,000 years and never getting closer than 200 times the Earth-Sun distance.

Ahefty degree of skepticism is certainly needed, though. After all, the infamous Planet X and the mythical Nibiru have been circling in astronomy and conspiracy circles for years. Planet Nine has not even been seen yet; its too early to say it exists for definite. But Brown himself is confident.

OK, OK, I am now willing to admit: I DO believe that the solar system has nine planets, he wrote on Twitter.

Shown is the predicted elliptical orbit for Planet Nine, and other orbits for known distant objects in the Solar System. Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

In their paper, Brown and Batygin say there is only a 0.007 percent chance that the observed clustering of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) is due to chance,suggesting another origin. We find that the observed orbital alignment can be maintained by a distant eccentric planet with mass [greater than 10 Earths], they wrote. The planet could also explain the elliptical orbits of dwarf planets like Sedna.

One possible explanation for the planets existence, according to the authors, is that it was a giant planet core that was ejected during the early Solar System, something that may be common in planetary systems.

The discovery of a ninth planet in the Solar System would be huge, and thats an understatement. Astronomers have previously predicted the existence of hundreds of dwarf planets beyond the orbit of Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, but so far no solid theories exist for a large planet like Planet Nine.

This paper is sure to be pored over, scrutinized, and perhaps even discredited, so dont expect to have to learn a new mnemonic for the planets any time soon. But be prepared; the man who killed Pluto might just have given a new lease of life to the hypothesized existence of a ninth world in our Solar System.

For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the Solar Systems planetary census is incomplete, said Batygin in a statement.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/possible-ninth-planet-solar-system-discovered

Enormous Volcano On Pluto Might Be The Biggest In The Outer Solar System

In the inner Solar System, the biggest volcano we know of is Olympus Mons on Mars, 624 kilometers (374 miles) across and 25 kilometers (16 miles) high. But what about in the outer Solar System?

Well, that record might now belong to Pluto. If a feature known as Wright Mons on this dwarf planet is confirmed as a volcano, it will take the title of the biggest such feature beyond Mars.

Named in honor of the Wright brothers, this massive ice structure can be seen circled by the red ring in the new image above. It is 150 kilometers (90 miles) wide and 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) high and appears to have volcano-like features, including a central depression that resembles a volcanic crater.

This image was returned by the New Horizons spaceraft, part of the ongoing data that is being returned after the flyby on July 14, 2015. Taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) from a distance of 48,000 kilometers (30,000 miles), it shows features as small as 450 meters (1,500 feet) across.

Color data was provided by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), obtained from a distance of 34,000 kilometers (21,000 miles).

Wright Mons is located near to a large smooth region called Sputnik Planum.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

One intriguing unanswered question is why there is only a smattering of red material known as tholins in the region.In addition, a lack of impact craters suggests that this surface is relatively young, meaning it has changed in the last few million years, possibly due to Wright Mons being active in Plutos late history. Wright Mons also has similarities to another theorized cryovolcano (ice volcano)on Pluto, Piccard Mons, which is slightly higher at 6 kilometers (3.5 miles).

Were not yet ready to announce we have found volcanic constructs at Pluto, but these sure look suspicious, and were looking at them very closely, said Jeff Moore, a planetary scientist at NASAs Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who heads the New Horizons geology team, when the structures were first studiedlast year.

If they are confirmed to be volcanoes that were active relatively recently, it would mean that Pluto likely has some sort of internal heat source. The cause of thisis not known, but it could be the radioactive decay of elements that remain from Plutos birth.

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A Dwarf Planet Beyond Neptune Is Bigger Than We Thought

In the last few years, we have started to realize that the dwarf planets beyond Neptuneare just as complex and diverse as the “official” eight planets of the Solar System. Among the dwarf planetsis the unnamed 2007 OR10, a small reddish object currently 13 billion kilometers (8 billion miles) from the Sun. And we’ve now got a better grasp on how big it is.

By combining optical observations from the Kepler observatory and infrared detections from the Herschel satellite, a team of astronomers was able to estimate both its size and its rotational period. The research is published in the Astrophysical Journal.

The team believes2007 OR10rotates on its axis roughly once every 45 hours (although a rotation every 22 hours cannot be ruled out), and by using this information they were able to revise the size estimate to 1,535 kilometers (955 miles) across. If the new measurement is confirmed, it makes 2007 OR10 the third largest trans-Neptunian object.

The new size, which is 250 kilometers higher than previous estimates, has also led the researchers to establish that the dwarf planet is actually darker, based on the fact that the same amount of light we observe is now reflected by a larger area. A bigger size also means higher gravity, indicating that the planet is retaining more complex chemicals, henceits dark reddish color.

“Our revised larger size for 2007 OR10 makes it increasingly likely the planet is covered in volatile ices of methane, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen, which would be easily lost to space by a smaller object,” said Andrs Pl, lead author of the study, in a statement.

“It’s thrilling to tease out details like this about a distant, new world especially since it has such an exceptionally dark and reddish surface for its size.”

Kepler results put2007 OR10 as the largest unnamed body in our Solar System and the third largest ofthedwarf planets.Konkoly Observatory/Andrs Pl, Hungarian Astronomical Association/Ivn der, NASA/JHUAPL/SwR

The new size measurement is certainly interestingand should allow 2007 OR10 to be finally accepted as a dwarf planet, but some are cautious asit has larger uncertainties than any other confirmed dwarf planet. Makemake, another trans-Neptunian object, is only slightly smaller, so the sizemight change with future observations. 2007 OR10 is certainly the largest object in the Solar System without a name, though.

The honor of naming it belongs to the discoverers Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown, and David Rabinowitz. Mike Brown, known for being the discoverer of Eris, the object thatcost Pluto its planetary status, said in a tweet that the naming will happen soon.

“The names of Pluto-sized bodies each tell a story about the characteristics of their respective objects. In the past, we haven’t known enough about 2007 OR10 to give it a name that would do it justice,” said Schwamb. “I think we’re coming to a point where we can give 2007 OR10 its rightful name.”

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/new-observations-make-2007-or10-largest-unnamed-object-solar-system

Pluto’s Halo Craters Revealed In New Images

Pluto continues to be a remarkably curious world. In the latest images from New Horizons, we can seecraters surrounded by a white “halo effect” in the westernVega Terra region of the dwarf planet.

The bright haloeffect is due to methane iceon the walls and rims of these craters, although why it forms there is a bit of a mystery. This is mirrored in the composition data from another of New Horizons’ instrumentsthe Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), which is the purple/blueimage below.

In the LEISA image, we see bright methane ice (in purple) on the walls and rims of water ice (in blue)scattered around the craters and terrain. Aside from the methane ice mystery, it’s also not clear why this effect is only present in this region and not across the whole of Pluto.

The halocraters are seenon top, withtheir composition (in false color) below. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

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NASA Has Mapped Out Pluto’s Geological Jigsaw

Pluto is a medley of geological textures. In order to gauge the numerous processes that have operated on Pluto, NASA has created a geological map of the dwarf planets rugged terrain.

A compilation of 12 images were used to create this map, which were gathered during New Horizons fleeting but fruitful passing of Pluto last year on July 14.

The imageswere taken by the spacecraft’sLong Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), 77,300 kilometers (48,000 miles) away from the icy surface. To give you a sense ofscale, one pixel accounts for around390 meters (1,280 feet).

In the center of the image, you can see Sputnik Planum (in pale blue-green),the icy plain surrounded by a hotchpotch of geological textures and morphologies.The black lines that web the icy plaindepictthe boundaries of cellular regions in the nitrogen ice.

Other interesting features include the yellow blobs on the left, which represent large impact craters, and the swath of red in the bottom-left corner that illustrates a potentially cryovolcanic mound known as Wright Mons.

As NASA explains, the information can also be used to work out when these geological processes occurred relative to each other,giving some sense of history to this far-out loner.

For a close-up view of the map, click here.

Image credit:NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

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Charon’s Cracks Formed During Ancient Near-Misses With Other Worlds

Ever since the gargantuan cracks on Plutos moon Charon were first spotted, astronomers have been baffled as to what may have formed them, with explanations ranging from giant impacts to an active, hot mantle.

A new paper, due to be published in the journal Icarus, has come up with an alternative, and arguably more compelling, explanation:Based on a series of computer simulations, it appears that a long history of near-misses by other massive objects, and not plate tectonics, may be responsible for forging mountains and canyons on this distant world.

I was inspired by computer graphics code in how to model the icy moons, Alice Quillen, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester and lead author of the study, said in a statement. The inside of the moons is similar to how blood splatter is modeled in games and the outer, icy crust is similar to modeling clothes and how they move.

The computer simulations of the close tidal encounters. Alice Quillen via YouTube

Earth’s Moon may be small, but it’s still sufficiently sizable to be able to generate tides on Earth with its gravitational pull, both at the surface and within the liquid outer core. This mechanism is known as tidal forcing, and the authors of this new study hypothesizedthat this phenomenon may have once acted on the surfaces of icy worlds and moons like Charon when similarlysized worlds drifted close by in the Solar System, although they don’t specify when this would have happened.

The researchers decided to use an N-body simulation, which models objects as having multiple internal regions interconnected by springs. Its commonly used by astrophysicists to model the effect of gravity on planets and stars, but this is the first time it has been applied to a moon.

A massive perturber forming cracks on a Charon-like icy world. Alice Quillen via YouTube

In multiple virtual experiments, simulated icy moons were kept stationary as similar mass objects flew by them, and the team watched as they became deformed.

As it turns out, such close encounters exert enough of a tidal force on the icy moons to cause their surface to fracture in a brittle manner and on surprisingly huge scales. This means that the giant cracks and complex fault structures on the icy moons of Dione and Tethys (of Saturn), Ariel (of Uranus), and Charon (of Pluto) at the very least may be caused by this mechanism.

A close-up of the tectonic belt on Charon. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

We know that Earths internal heat escapes through both volcanoes and, significantly, convection currents in the mantle; these move around tectonic plates, which create mountains, faults, canyons, ocean basins, and continents. This process is known as plate tectonics, and its been happening on Earth for at least 3 billion years, but theres little evidence that it has happened anywhere else in the Solar System.

Icy moons like Charon are thought to be too small to still contain any heat left over from their presumably violent formation, so its unlikely that plate tectonics ever managed to effectively operate on them in the same way they did, and still do, on Earth. Perhaps this new study has finally solved the conundrum of where the ginormous alien crevasses come from or, as another recent study suggested, these vast canyons may have instead formed as the icy moon cooled and contracted.

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Scientists Think Rivers Of Liquid Nitrogen Once Flowed On Pluto

There are tropics on Pluto. While this may sound counterintuitive, its climate means that there are warmer parts of the world relative to its colder, arctic regions. As new research presented at the 2016 Lunar and Planetary Science Conferencethis week reveals, this diverse climate means that rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen are likely to form at the surface.

Even with less than half of New Horizons data, scientists are unravelling more and more secrets about the dwarf planet by the day. The latest comes by way of researchers at NASAwho confirm that Pluto despite being on average 5.9 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) away from the Sun has seasons.

The central tropical region of Pluto, from 60 north to 60 south, experiences the Sun passing directly overhead. Its arctic region above 30 north experiences prolonged sunlight in the summer months, whilst the arctic region beneath 30 south is utterly frigid in a simultaneous winter.

Pluto is tipped over on its rotational axis at 120, rather wonky compared to Earths 23 tilt. As a result of this, during a northern arctic summer, the region receiving the most heat is its north pole.

Go home Pluto, youre drunk: The extreme axial tilt of the dwarf planet. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The dwarf planet wobbles and shakes on its axis as it orbits the Sun just like Earth does, meaning that these arctic regions advance and retreat over cycles of hundreds of thousands of years. One region, however, never experiences arctic climates.

This band, between 13 N and 13 S, appears to have been gouged out, in that theres a dark, deep stripe compared to the rest of the planet. The researchers think that the constant warm band here means that ice and volatiles compounds that evaporate at low temperatures couldnt accumulate here under the Suns constant bombardment.

The dark equatorial band. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Incidentally, the icy worlds elliptical orbit means that it moves between 50 Earth-Sun distances at its furthest point from the Sun and 30 Earth-Sun distances at its nearest point. Consequently, the temperature difference between a distant summer and a closer summer are more extreme than almost anywhere else.

This is all still relative, mind you: a summertime peak temperature is still around -200C (-330F). As Pluto takes 248 Earth years to rotate around the Sun, these summers and winters last for more than a century.

A second paper presented at the conference reveals that Plutos atmospheric pressure has varied wildly over its history, driven by these long-term orbital and rotational changes. It has ranged from about one-ten-thousandth right up to up to one-fifth of Earths.

These enormous changes in atmospheric pressure would have a distinct effect on the surface of the world; at higher pressures, the abundant nitrogen at the surface would remain a liquid instead of a gas. This means rivers, floods and lakes of liquid nitrogen may haved existed on Pluto.

Researchers noted that these features would be relatively common around 800,000 years ago, when temperatures were hot enough to lead to widespread melting. There may be some still around today near the equatorial region, although they have yet to be spotted. Frozen lakes, however, have been seen, and these ice reservoirs were almost certainly once liquid.

An enhanced color image of Pluto highlighting its wildly varying geological features. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto is the gift that just keeps on giving, it seems. A plethora of papers have recently revealed that Plutos atmosphere isnt disintegrating as much as we previously thought, and most significantly, the surface is active essentially meaning that mountain building and perhaps cryovolcanism is still happening on this distant, icy sphere.

Above is a video of the research presented from the LPSC.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/pluto-has-rivers-liquid-nitrogen-extreme-seasons-and-chaotic-atmosphere

Stunning New Mosaic Of Pluto Reveals Battered Surface

Each week, we look forward to new and exciting Pluto announcements, and this week is definitely no exception. Just five months ago we were on the edge of our seats, anticipating the first-ever up-close views of the icy world.

Now, with less than half of the data collected by New Horizons beamed back to Earth, we are just beginning to understand it.

Along with these incredible new images are detailed scientificfindings revealing the secrets of Plutos geography, atmosphere and moons. The research was presented today during the American Geophysical Unions Fall Meeting.

Weve seen Pluto resemble the Earth in remarkable ways. This week, scientists presented evidence for hanging valleys like the ones in Wyomings Yellowstone National Park. The presence of these eroded valleys are geological evidence indicating there was widespread glacial activity both in Plutos past and its present.

Alan Howard, a scientific collaborator with the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team, said in a statement:Pluto has greatly exceeded our expectations in diversity of landforms and processes processes that continue to the present.

As New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern has said previously that what we knew about Pluto when New Horizons “could fit on one sheet of paper,” and soon we will be able to “write the textbook. However, before we can write the book, we need to understand the processes taking place on this icy world. Scientists believe the key to understanding Plutos geological activity is to understand the role of nitrogen and other volatile ices.

Pluto has a heart as seen in the iconic post-flyby image with two very different lobes. The left side is a vast, icy basin covering an area 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) wide. Unofficially dubbed Sputnik Planum, after the first satellite launched into space, the region is littered with icy polygonal features and covered in nitrogen ice. New numerical models show that thermal convection is taking place within the icy layers of the planum and are the driving source behind the unusual polygons. The models show this area is still being transformed today by glacial flows of nitrogen ice, erasing any evidence of craters or scarring.

Unlike the smooth icy plains of Sputnik Planum, the right side of Plutos frozen heart is covered in strange pits and rougher terrain. Unofficially named Tombaugh Regio after the man who discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, the region appears to be older than the neighboring planum.This region of Pluto is scarred by vast chasms and chock full of impact craters and even mountains that tower above the surface basically tons of interesting surface features to stare at. The new images show details resolve features as small as 500 meters (1,640 feet) across, revealing Plutos contrasting surface in stunning detail.

Adjacent to Tombaugh Regio in Plutos western hemisphereis Wright Mons,one of two potential cryovolcanoes on Pluto. Similar to the shield volcanoes we see on Earth, Wright Mons and Piccard Mons have a broad, circular basin with a deep depression at the summit. However, instead of lava and ash, cryovolcanoes would spew a melted slurry of water ice, ammonia and other volatiles.

Also included in the latest image release is a new view of Nix, Plutos third largest moon. This is one of the best images we have of Plutos potato-shaped moon and shows a heavily cratered surface. The image was taken on the day of the flyby, July 14, and at a distance of 23,000 kilometers (14,000 miles).

Image in text: The full new mosaic of Pluto.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/stunning-new-mosaic-pluto

Pluto’s Moons Behave Like Spinning Tops

We know that Pluto is unlike anything we ever imagined, and its family of moons is no exception. Before arriving at the Pluto system, scientists made some predictions about Plutos small moons based on data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories. Some were pretty spot on, and others were way off. Lets take a look at what weve learned so far about this incredibly interesting and dynamic system.

The Pluto system is composed of the binary pair of Pluto and its largest moon Charon, with four smaller moons Nix, Styx, Hydra, and Kerberos orbiting the duo. Since Pluto and Charon orbit a common barycenter, its better to think of Pluto and Charon as a pair rather than a planet and a large moon. Prior to its closest approach, data from the Hubble Space Telescope predicted that Plutos small moons orbit in a chaotic fashion.

The vast majority of moons in the Solar System are very well-behaved: orbiting in synchronous rotation and tidally locked with their planet, keeping the same face toward the planet all the time. As the science team analyzes the New Horizons data, we are seeing time and time again that Pluto’s small moons do not play by these rules; they write their own.

During a briefing at the 47th annual meeting for the Division of Planetary Science, Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute said, Weve gone from dots to details in less than 10 years. Its amazing what we have learned so far. Its not chaos in this system, its pandemonium.

New data from the New Horizons spacecraft reveals the small satellites are spinning much faster than first predicted. For example Hydra, the most distant moon, spins a whopping 89 times in one single orbit. Hydra is acting like a typical Kuiper Belt Object, Showalter said. It spins 89 times in one time around Pluto; flaunting everything we know about objects in the Solar System, Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist added.

Our first response to this might be to ask why Hydra is spinning so fast, but the better question is Why hasnt it slowed down? The science team doesnt quite understand all the dynamics of the Pluto system yet, but one hypothesis is that Charon exerts a strong torque on the smaller satellites, preventing them from slowing down and settling into a synchronous rotation.

Nix, Plutos innermost, potato-shaped moon could arguably be the most fascinating of the small moons. Spanning 48 kilometers by 32 kilometers (29 miles by 19 miles) roughly the surface area of Los Angeles the surface is void of any boulders or fractures, but we do see a fewrecognizable craters and a few potential craters that we cant quite resolve. The wobbly potato moon also rotates backwards, and even increased its spin rate by as much as 10percent between 2012 and2014.

The small moons of Pluto behave like spinning tops. Credit: Nasa/Youtube

Styx and Kerberos are so small and low mass that its no wonder our predictions for Kerberos were completely off. Originally scientists believed the moon to be darker than the others, but recently returned data from New Horizons shows the tiny moons surface to be just as reflective as the rest.

Images of the small moons indicate that at least two of them Kerberos and Hydra appear to be dual-lobed and could have formed as a result of two different bodies merging together. This suggests that at one time Pluto may have had more moons. Showalter and Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, suspect that the small moons formed during the sameimpact that created Charon.

Scientistscombined data collected from New Horizons with computer models and concluded that an object smaller than Pluto but larger than Charon had to have struck the protoplanet Pluto in order to create the two bodies we see today. The data also indicates this impact had to have taken place a very long time ago, not long after the formation of the original body.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/plutos-moons-behave-spinning-tops-ke-editing

New Horizons Begins Life After Pluto By Studying Distant Solar System Object

After the New Horizons spacecraft made its historic flyby of Pluto in July 2015, the plan was always to send it further out of the Solar System to study other objects. Now, the spacecraft has returned the first science from such observations.

New Horizons observed a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) on two separate occasions called 1994 JR1, which measures 145 kilometers (90 miles) across. KBOs are remnants of the early Solar System, in the form of icy comets and asteroids, so studying them could reveal important clues about our beginnings.

These observations werent comparable with the Pluto flyby though, when New Horizons flew just a few tens of thousands of kilometers above the surface. Instead, New Horizons snapped the KBO from a distance of 111 million kilometers (69 million miles) in early April, following preliminary observations from more than twice as far away in November 2015.

But this post-Pluto science is important, because it helps New Horizons practice for a more ambitious mission in 2019. On January 1 of that year, mission scientists will send New Horizons flying past a KBO called 2014 MU69 closer than it came to Pluto, although the exact flyby distance is not known yet.

As for JR1, well, we did actually learn a bit from these views. First, scientists were able to pinpoint its location to within 1,000 kilometers (621miles), the most accurate for any small KBO. This allowed them to rule out a theory that JR1 might be a distant satellite of Pluto. They were also able to work out JR1s rotation speed, clocking it at one rotation every 5.4 Earth hours.

Above, an animation of JR1 moving from two of 20 observations made in April 2016. Top left is an internal camera reflection, which NASA calls “a kind of selfie.”NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Thats relatively fast for a KBO, said science team member John Spencer, from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado, in a statement. This is all part of the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things never seen before.

Before New Horizons reaches 2014 MU69, it willstudy about 20 more KBOs, pending approval for this extended mission from NASA (which seems a done deal at the moment). Pluto may have been impressive, but these endeavors will tell us even more about the outer Solar System than ever before.

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