Pluto: The Little Planet That Could
When it comes to Pluto, you could say the planet has had it rough. Not only was it considered a star when first discovered, but its planetary status has always been questioned within the scientific community. However, little Pluto and the mysteries surrounding the celestial body has continued to draw attention over the years. Known as the smallest planet in our solar system, it is the furthest from the sun and one of the least studied…until now.
When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passed by Pluto, it discovered mysterious structures as tall as skyscrapers on the surface. Is it possible they were the remnants of an ancient civilization?
Space Exploration Reignited
The space race in the 1960’s and 70’s saw countries around the world rushing to put a man in space, as well as land on the moon. However, the desire to explore the universe and its mysteries faded for quite some time. However, in the last decade, interest in what lies beyond the stars has been reignited, with new missions being launched regularly. From the International Space Station to plans to send a manned mission to Mars, the interest in space is very much alive.
What is Planet X?
Long before Pluto was known by its current name, it used to be called Planet X. An American businessman named Percival Lowell believed that another planet was out there past Uranus and Neptune and spent over ten years searching for its existence.
Unfortunately, this discovery would remain out of his reach.
Death & Discovery
Lowell would pass away long before Pluto would actually be discovered as a planet; however, the observatory he founded in 1894 would continue his research. Thankfully, Lowell left a blueprint for new astronomers to follow.
The target? An anomaly he discovered between the planets Uranus and Neptune.
A Dream Fulfilled
Unfortunately, it would be years after his death before research resumed on finding the mysterious planet. This was mostly due to Lowell’s widow being involved in a dispute with the observatory’s new management.
However, a young and upcoming astronomer by the name of Clyde Tombaugh would be the one to finally prove the planet’s existence. It would take a year of studying photographs taken via a powerful telescope, but on March 13, 1930, the planet would officially be announced to the world.
The only problem was it still needed a name.
A New Planet Named!
In an attempt to get the global community involved in this amazing discovery, Tombaugh crafted a contest to name the planet. Submissions from around the globe flooded into the observatory, but it was one from eleven-year-old Venetia Burney that stood out.
Its name would be Pluto.
Pluto’s Status Questioned
Over the years since Pluto’s discovery, many in the scientific community have questioned if the planet actually qualifies as a planet due to its size. In 1992, one group’s petition gained enough traction to strip Pluto of its planetary status.
Thankfully, Pluto was offered a reprieve years later and was categorized as a “dwarf planet.”
The New Horizons Mission
Despite its discovery, not much is known about the far and away planet. With it being so far from Earth, studying its mysteries has proved difficult. However, NASA sought to remedy this and learn more about the planet by launching the New Horizons mission in 2006.
The mission was designed to gain a deeper understanding of Pluto and its five moons. Charon and its unique qualities were of particular interest.
One of the benefits of the New Horizon’s trajectory was that it would be able to complete a flyby of the planet Jupiter and its moon, Callisto. The spacecraft would take its first photographs of the planet on September 4, 2006, with up close shots of the surface in February 2007.
One of the main goals for the Jupiter encounter was to study its atmospheric conditions and the compositions of its clouds. It also was a practice run for the New Horizons’ camera system to ensure it was functioning properly for its approach to Pluto.
Slipping into Hibernation
Leaving Jupiter behind, the New Horizons would begin its long trek through the outer solar system, spending most of its time in hibernation mode to save power.
With its trajectory set, the spacecraft would spend the next 8 years silently moving through the darkness of space…
On January 4, 2015, the New Horizons would begin its distant encounter operations. While the initial images were only a few pixels wide, they were enough for investigators to modify the spacecraft’s trajectory for a better approach.
Soon, the world would witness photographs unlike they’d ever seen from a planet that had always remained shrouded in mystery.
A Flurry of Images
As the images began to flood into NASA, they were amazed by the clarity and quality of the photographs. The New Horizons also captured rare glimpses of the moons Nix and Hydra, allowing for NASA scientists to begin to piece together the puzzle of Pluto and its moons.
However, it was one image that featured large structures on the surface of the planet that caught NASA’s attention.
What could they be?
The Towering Structures
Determined to be as high as skyscrapers in some instances, these towering structures were analyzed by NASA scientist, Jeffrey Moore.
After analyzing several photographs, Moore was shocked by what he found.
It was revealed that the high, bladed terrain was actually large deposits of methane ice. Since the climate of Pluto was constantly fluctuating, the ice would evaporate when the atmosphere warmed and then refreeze, which created their bladed appearance.
What’s even more interesting is that this phenomenon happens on Earth as well.
A Similar Phenomenon
Known as “penitents” these icy blades can be found in snowfields at higher altitudes. The Chajnantor Plain in Chile is one of the more well-known regions where this phenomenon occurs.
Pretty spectacular, right?
Over the course of its flyby of Pluto and Charon, the New Horizons recorded over 6.25 GB of data. Due to the distance from Earth, it would take over seven months to fully transmit all of the information back to NASA. However, once this data was received, another amazing observation was made.
You won’t believe what these scientists uncovered.
One image of Pluto revealed a strange surface pattern that when examined more closely revealed it could possibly be snowing on the planet. Now, in order for snow to occur, you don’t just need frigid temperatures. A planet needs to have an atmosphere that can produce snow clouds or a volcanic eruption must occur that can send frozen material high enough into the air.
With Pluto’s thin nitrogen-based atmosphere, snow could be a possibility.
With so much more to study in the outer rim, the New Horizons team requested an extension through 2021 to explore more of the region.
This extension was granted by NASA for the purpose of studying more objects in the Kuiper Belt.
New Target: Kuiper Belt
The Kuiper Belt is a region of the solar system that is believed to contain comets, asteroids and other small bodies of ice. It encircles our solar system and isn’t too far from Pluto’s location. The hope is to study 12 large objects in the region and determine their composition.
However, studying Pluto is far from over.
A Manned Mission to Pluto?
While most of the space community is currently focused on a manned mission to Mars, there are quite a few people who have suggested Pluto as a potential candidate to send astronauts to. NASA does plan to send a robotic Pluto lander to the planet’s surface next, but a monumental discovery could alter those plans.
However, there are some facts to consider. With our current propulsion systems, it would take 10-15 years to get a man to Pluto. The longest anyone has remained in space is 437 days and no small, self-contained biosphere has lasted longer than two years in space.
While the possibility is certainly there…the truth is current technology isn’t quite there yet.
So Much More to Discover
The New Horizons mission has opened so many doors for space exploration and what can be achieved. As man continues to push technology to the brink and new discoveries are made every day, one can’t even comprehend what the future holds in terms of space exploration.
It’s an exciting time, indeed.