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March 20, 2016

New studies detail just how complex Pluto and its moons are

by John_A

Before New Horizons started sending back data and close-up images of Pluto, we barely knew the dwarf planet. We were like a love-sick fool who could only observe from afar. Now, the New Horizons scientists have enough material to publish five new papers that detail the probe’s findings on the dwarf planet and its moons in Science. One of its most important discoveries is that Pluto has been geologically active for 4 billion years. Its heart-shaped region’s western lobe, the Sputnik Planum, however, is relatively young at only 10-million-years-old.

The reason why Sputnik Planum is all smooth and intact is because the dwarf planet doesn’t release as much nitrogen into the atmosphere as we thought. One of the possible explanations for that is that its upper atmospheric temperature is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit colder than scientists assumed in the past. The team also found a plausible explanation for the hazy outline blanketing Pluto’s surface, which you can see in the image above. They believe it could be a collection of haze particles suspended in the air due to the winds blowing over Pluto’s numerous mountains.

Besides publishing information about the dwarf planet itself, the team also revealed new findings about its moons. Charon, the celestial body’s largest moon, apparently has a surface that’s just as ancient. Plus, they found evidence that its fellow (but smaller) satellites Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra weren’t captured from the Kuiper Belt. They were likely the products of a collision that formed the whole Pluto system instead. NASA has listed the most significant information in the papers on its website. But if that’s not enough and there’s nothing better than spending a weekend poring over scientific papers, you can access all five right here.

Source: NASA (1), (2), Science (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6)

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