Scientists have Discovered that Pluto’s Atmosphere is Beginning to Disappear

Scientists have Discovered that Pluto’s Atmosphere is Beginning to Disappear
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Scientists have discovered that Pluto’s atmosphere is undergoing a strange transformation.

The icy dwarf planet, which is over 3 billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers) from Earth in the Kuiper Belt, piqued astronomers’ interest in 2018 when it passed in front of a star.

The team of researchers was able to observe Pluto and its atmosphere because the star was backlighting it. With this unique perspective, they arrived at an unexpected conclusion, which they describe in a new study.

The astronomers discovered evidence that Pluto’s atmosphere is vanishing.

The team observed Pluto and its thin atmosphere, which is primarily made of nitrogen, similar to that of Earth, using telescopes at multiple locations in both the United States and Mexico. The vapor pressure of ices on Pluto’s surface supports the dwarf planet’s atmosphere. According to a statement from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the home institution of several members of the research team, if ice on Pluto warms up, it can dramatically alter the density of its atmosphere.

Pluto has been moving away from the sun for about 25 years, and as a result, its surface temperature has been decreasing. With these new observations, the researchers discovered evidence that Pluto’s atmosphere is actually refreezing back onto its surface as the dwarf planet becomes colder and colder. Pluto is so far from the sun that as time passes, it will become noticeably farther away (and colder) before moving closer to the sun in other parts of its vast orbit.

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Pluto’s surface pressure and atmospheric density continued to rise until 2018 due to a phenomenon known as thermal inertia. Pluto essentially had residual heat from its closer proximity to the sun. However, as Pluto’s inertia wears off, more and more of its atmosphere will freeze back onto its surface and “disappear.”

“An analogy to this is the way the sun heats up sand on a beach,” SwRI staff scientist Leslie Young, who studies the interaction of icy solar system bodies, their surfaces, and atmospheres, said in the same statement.

“Sunlight is most intense at high noon, but the sand then continues soaking up the heat over the course of the afternoon, so it is hottest in the late afternoon. The continued persistence of Pluto’s atmosphere suggests that nitrogen ice reservoirs on Pluto’s surface were kept warm by stored heat under the surface. The new data suggests they are starting to cool,” Young stated.

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So how did they know this just by watching Pluto pass in front of a star?

The researchers observed the star fade as Pluto passed in front of it, then reappear once Pluto had passed. According to the statement, they were able to determine the density of the dwarf planet’s atmosphere by measuring the rate at which the star came into and out of view, a transition that lasted about 2 minutes.

This method is based on a “occultation,” which occurs when one cosmic object is obscured by another passing in front of it. Occultations are an old and well-worn technique in the world of astronomy, and researchers have used it to study Pluto’s atmosphere since 1988, according to Eliot Young, a SwRI senior program manager.

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“The New Horizons mission obtained an excellent density profile from its 2015 flyby, consistent with Pluto’s bulk atmosphere doubling every decade, but our 2018 observations do not show that trend continuing from 2015,” Young added, referring to the pioneering NASA mission that provided the world with its first up-close look at Pluto.

When the team observed Pluto as it passed in front of the star, they noticed a “central flash” in the middle of the dwarf planet’s shadow’s path. The flash, caused by Pluto’s atmosphere refracting light into the center of the shadow, changed the normal light curve during occultation from a “u-shape” to a “w-shape.”

“The central flash seen in 2018 was by far the strongest that anyone has ever seen in a Pluto occultation,” Young said. “The central flash gives us very accurate knowledge of Pluto’s shadow path on the Earth.”

Young presented the findings of this study on Oct. 4 at the 53rd Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences.

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