Pluto May Be Bigger Than We Thought, NASA’s New Horizons Reveals
The unmanned NASA spacecraft, launched almost a decade ago, will come close to Pluto on Tuesday.
According to Yahoo News, New Horizons – regarded as the fastest spaceship currently traveling at 30,800 miles per hour (49,570 kilometers per hour) – will present a detailed glimpse of the surface of the dwarf planet for the first time.
The findings reveal that Pluto is larger than what was earlier believed. The measurement collected by New Horizons, which is about to fly by the dwarf planet, reveals that the diameter of Pluto is 2.370 kilometers. This also confirms that Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, the outer belt of the solar system.
There will be more specific and detailed data regarding the dwarf planet’s size once the probe sends back images after traveling past Pluto.
According to BBC, the findings suggest that Pluto is less dense than was earlier known. Through this, the amount of ice in its interior can be expected to be more. Principal investigator Alan Stern said that the dwarf planet also has a polar ice cap, whose composition is rich in methane and different than the rings that circle Pluto’s equator.
Since the size of Pluto has been discovered to be larger than previously thought, it also changes certain properties of its atmosphere – the troposphere is probably a bit shallower.
Eris, whose discovery in 2005 caused the demotion of Pluto from its planetary status in 2006, does not have a dense atmosphere; and so it is easier to be surer about its size than Pluto. The latest findings suggest, though, that the diameter of Pluto could be 30 kilometers more than Eris.
Eris’ diameter has been measured to be 2,326 kilometers (1,445 miles), plus or minus 12 kilometers (7.5 miles).
“Before New Horizons, we had a range from 1,150km in radius, up to a little bit north of 1,200km. And what we found is that Pluto is almost at the top of that range,” said Stern.
As reported by NBC News, Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, is 751 miles (1,208 kilometers). Nix and Hydra, the dwarf planet’s smaller moons, are 20 and 30 miles (35 and 45 kilometers) wide, respectively.
Deputy Project Scientist Cathy Olkin says that more details will surface in the next few days.
“Right now, we are taking data that if you could transport (New York’s) Central Park to Pluto you would be able to identify the ponds in Central Park, that is the kind of resolution we will be getting.
“We are going to be making stereo maps so that we can see how tall the mountains are and how low the valleys are,” she said.
New Horizons was launched almost nine and a half years ago. It was to study the surface of Pluto and Charon and other moons, and also examine Pluto’s atmosphere. The unmanned mission cost $728 million.
New Horizons will now create a complete picture of the dwarf planet by studying the sunrise and sunset.
The most recent discovery could lead to answers about the origins of Earth. It will also attempt to answer if there is a possibility of existence of life elsewhere in the solar system, NASA’s John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate said.
“The Pluto system is a fossil remnant of the beginnings of our solar system. We are going to learn about where we are coming from,” Grunsfeld said.
“It is opening up a new realm of exploration,” he added.
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