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The little planet that isn’t just keeps churning out new surprises. New research on Pluto’s atmosphere shows the dwarf planet is way more dynamic than previously thought. Space.com reports the newest finds.
“Poisonous carbon monoxide gas has been discovered in the atmosphere of the dwarf planet Pluto, after a worldwide search that lasted nearly two decades, according to a new study that also detected the planet's atmosphere extending much higher above the surface than previously thought.”
Astronomers were expecting to find carbon monoxide in the atmosphere eventually. What they weren’t expecting was the amount. A researcher tells National Geographic the results were dramatic.
“The new study... not only confirms the gas is there, it shows that the amount of carbon monoxide has doubled since 2000. ‘Think of [any gas doubling] on Earth over one decade,’ said study leader Jane Greaves...”
Pluto’s atmosphere grows as it orbits closer to the sun.
The extra heat evaporates gas from the surface. In the last 10 years, it’s grown so high, you could fit another Pluto in it. (Image source: Science Magazine)
The problem, according to Science Magazine, is Pluto has been moving farther away from the sun for 20 years.
“Pluto travels along a highly elliptical path and last passed closest to the sun in 1989. Many planetary scientists expected the atmosphere to shrink as the icy orb began receding from the sun’s warmth. The unanticipated expansion may be related to changes in the darkness of the orb’s surface a decade or so ago … Or ... long-term variations in the sun’s ultraviolet output...”
The researchers say the dramatic change in Pluto’s atmosphere can help us understand the changes in Earth’s climate. And that’s not all: MIT Technology Review says the extra atmosphere gives Pluto the chance to wag its tail.
“The thinking is that the expanding atmosphere is interacting with the solar wind and being shaped into a tail. That could throw the cat among the pigeons next time Pluto's status as a planet comes up for discussion. It gives ammunition to the naysayers who can now claim that far from being a planet or even a dwarf planet, Pluto is merely a giant comet.”
The biggest news about Pluto is expected to come in 2015, when the spacecraft New Horizons is scheduled to give us the Planet’s first ever fly-by pictures.
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