Mystery energy roughs up icy Pluto

So too the pictures from Pluto, even downgraded as it has been to a small planet, provided uplifting news at a time when economic woes, war and starvation dominates much policy making around the world. “We explore because we are human and we long to know”.


New Horizons spent approximately nine-and-a-half years flying to its primary target. And I didn’t. Its atmosphere is very thin, but it’s composed largely of nitrogen, like our own. It is fitting that this encounter is happening 50 years after the Mariner probe’s historic Mars flyby. Several attempts at a Pluto mission were formulated by NASA, but for various reasons none came to fruition, usually because of insufficient funding.

Here’s a bet that none of them will get a visit by a NASA spacecraft, as Pluto did this week.

I became interested in Pluto as a graduate student at Caltech in 1984. “It was found just ten years before you were born”. However, this would eliminate its ability to take photos. I focused on the planet’s chemistry.

When New Horizons sent back the first batch of its bountiful trove of data, there was something close to bedlam experienced, according to the mission’s principal investigator Alan Stern.

My main interest is understanding the chemistry and stability of Pluto’s atmosphere.

Until a topographic map is laid out for Pluto, Frontier Developments won’t change the look of the planet in Elite: unsafe. But apparently it hasn’t.

The New Horizons team announced this week it was naming the “heart” shape on Pluto’s surface, Tombaugh Regio, after Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto.

It has a polar cap of methane and nitrogen. Meanwhile, the spacecraft that made it all possible continues to drift closer and closer to the edge of the solar system. They are generally known as “tholins” – a generic term to describe this reddish material.

So far, Pluto’s atmosphere appears to be pretty symmetric all the way around the planet, extending from the ground to at least a thousand miles above the surface.

There is another element of mystery to be figured out: There are vast regions without meteorite craters, indicating they must relatively young. The science team meetings were always interesting and animated, and at every step our conversations were laced with wild speculation about Pluto.

An earlier image of the equatorial region near the base of Pluto’s bright heart-shaped feature shows a mountain range with peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. They’d have to make a bigger room for the planetarium, is what I thought.


The IAU says that for an object to be a planet it has to meet three criteria. And later two more were discovered! Though that description might make people think more of Disney’s iconic dog, Pluto than the mythological god of the underworld that the dwarf planet was actually named after, the latest images have shown what looks like a heart on the surface of Pluto and also a tail of gas that the dwarf planet is emitting. The political wrangling over Pluto’s status, the freakish discoveries and New Horizons’ continuing quest worked via synergy to increase public interest in and support for our mission, which in turn energized the team.

Moment NASA’s New Horizons team members count down to the spacecraft’s approach to Pluto on Tuesday