WHAT WE MIGHT FIND ON PLUTO WHEN THE NEW HORIZONS SPACECRAFT FLIES BY ON TUESDAY JULY 14TH
We're about to get our closest look ever at Pluto on Tuesday, July 14th when NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flies by at a distance of only about 7,800 miles (compared to 3 billion from Earth). We know very little about the surface of the dwarf planet, but here's what scientists think we could find... By Sarah E. Fecht
- •More Moons and RingsPluto has five known moons, and the New Horizons team is somewhat surprised that the spacecraft hasn’t spotted any new ones during its approach. But the spacecraft is still 2.9 million miles away, so there’s a small chance that more could turn up. More probable is the chance of finding rings. Astronomers have suggested that Pluto could be encircled in faint disks of dust...
- •SnowPluto has a thin atmosphere that’s a lot like our own in composition, containing nitrogen, oxygen and small amounts of methane, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbon. Pluto also has weather. “We could see many different kinds of weather,” says Stern. “We know it snows there.”
- •Snow-canoesCryovolcanoes, or volcanoes that erupt frozen materials, have been found on Neptune’s moon Triton. Triton and Pluto are considered to be icy siblings, so maybe Pluto has cryovolcanoes as well.
- •Rivers of Neon (long shot)Pluto’s atmosphere is thought to contain neon, and at the freezing cold temperatures on Pluto, neon condenses into a liquid. So it is technically possible that neon could flow like water on Pluto, but it is highly unlikely, says Stern. “I might sit next to the Kardashians at dinner tonight. It’s not likely, but it could happen.”
- •OceanPluto, like many of the frigid worlds of the outer solar system, may harbor an ocean beneath its surface.
- •A shared atmosphere with Pluto's moon CharonCharon is so large in comparison to Pluto that the moon does not orbit it nice, like Earth’s moon. Instead, like two ice skaters spinning, Pluto and Charon orbit around a center of gravity that’s somewhere in between them, forming a binary planet system. Because of this close interaction, some researchers have suggested that Charon might be suctioning off some of Pluto’s atmosphere. If so, it would be the first known case of a planet and a moon sharing an atmosphere.