Pluto continues to mystify astronomers as new image based evidence suggests that the dwarf planet’s atmosphere may be more complex than previously thought and that’s because of likely presence of clouds.
That’s the claim put forward by researchers at NASA who believe based on images sent across by New Horizons that while most of the atmosphere on Pluto is cloud-free they have spotted what seems to be clouds in the atmosphere. The images that provided the clues were take by New Horizons while it was at its closest to Pluto in July last year. The announcement was made by principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, Alan Stern.
Pluto’s surface has also continued to puzzle scientists for it continuously shows variations in brightness. These variations have been observed first through telescopes here on Earth and the same variations were confirmed by New Horizons as well as on its mission to Pluto. New Horizons images have confirmed not only that the surface is varied, but also shows that the brightest areas (such as sections of Pluto’s large heart-shaped region) are among the most reflective in the solar system.
These variations in brightness indicate that the dwarf planet’s surface is very much active and could be one of the reasons behind formation of clouds on the planet.
NASA mission scientists note that while surface activity has been confirmed, they haven’t been able to observe landslides – something that was observed on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, itself some 750 miles (1,200 kilometres) across. Astronomers continue to sift through the enormous amounts of data that is being sent across by New Horizons and are optimistic that we will continue to learn a lot of new things about the distant dwarf planet.
The scientists also revealed that New Horizons is set to fly past 2014 MU69 — a Kuiper Belt object currently about 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto — on January 1, 2019. Hubble Space Telescope data suggests that the distant object is as red, if not redder, than Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft is currently 5.5 billion kilometres from Earth and about 540 million kilometres beyond Pluto, speeding away from the sun at about 14 kilometres every second.
The findings were discussed earlier this week at the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) and European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) in Pasadena, California.