Skip to Content
Uncategorized

Pluto May Have Comet-Like Tail

The latest measurements of Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere indicate that it may be shaped into a comet-like tail, say astronomers

Pluto’s has a highly elliptical orbit that takes it inside the orbit of Neptune and then out into the distant icy reaches of the Solar System.

Astronomers have long believed that this would have important effects on the dwarf planet’s atmosphere. Their models indicate that Pluto’s atmosphere is likely to swell as it moves closer to the Sun and the poles sublimate. Later, the atmosphere should condense as it cools down.

That should make the surface of Pluto a barren windswept land that constantly changes as it is battered by supersonic winds. Indeed, Hubble images show that Pluto’s surface has a number of interesting features that seem to be changing.

In recent years, other evidence has emerged to back up suspicions that Pluto is more complex than astronomers initially imagined.

Today, Jan Greaves at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and a couple of buddies reveal the details of their own study of Pluto’s atmosphere using the 15 meter James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii.

These guys find clear evidence of gaseous carbon dioxide at altitudes of up to four times Pluto’s radius. And they say there is significantly more of the stuff than the last time CO was detected in 2000.

That’s strange. Pluto is currently moving away from the Sun after its closest approach in 1989 and ought to be cooling down. One explanation is that the south pole has recently come out of shadow for the first time in 120 years and for a short time may be evaporating more quickly than the north pole is condensing.

But Greaves and co’s most interesting discovery is a small red shift in the CO spectrum indicating that Pluto’s atmosphere must be moving away from Earth in an unexpected way.

Their tentative explanation is exciting: “The marginal CO line red-shift, if real, could indicate a flow forming into a comet-like tail directed away from the Sun,” they say.

The thinking is that the expanding atmosphere is interacting with the solar wind and being shaped into a tail.

That could throw the cat among the pigeons next time Pluto’s status as a planet comes up for discussion. It gives ammunition to the naysayers who can now claim that far from being a planet or even a dwarf planet, Pluto is merely a giant comet.

Astronomers will find out more in the coming years. The world’s telescopes will be increasingly trained on Pluto as the arrival of the New Horizons mission draws near. Its flyby is scheduled for 2105.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1104.3014: Discovery Of Carbon Monoxide In The Upper Atmosphere Of Pluto

You can now follow The Physics arXiv Blog on Twitter

Deep Dive

Uncategorized

Embracing CX in the metaverse

More than just meeting customers where they are, the metaverse offers opportunities to transform customer experience.

Identity protection is key to metaverse innovation

As immersive experiences in the metaverse become more sophisticated, so does the threat landscape.

The modern enterprise imaging and data value chain

For both patients and providers, intelligent, interoperable, and open workflow solutions will make all the difference.

Scientists have created synthetic mouse embryos with developed brains

The stem-cell-derived embryos could shed new light on the earliest stages of human pregnancy.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.