A brief history of the discovery of Pluto’s atmosphere

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(ORDO NEWS) — In 1985, while watching Pluto (color image below) pass in front of a distant star, astronomers noticed that the starlight was blocked quite smoothly, rather than abruptly, as is the case, for example, with Mercury or the Moon.

This was indirect evidence that the dwarf planet has an atmosphere.

In 1988, after conducting a series of intensive observations of Pluto, scientists obtained additional circumstantial evidence for the presence of an atmosphere.

However, given the extremely limited capabilities of the telescopes of those times, the researchers could only wait for new equipment to appear that could confirm or refute their hypothesis.

On April 24, 1990, the legendary NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope was launched and in 1994 took the most detailed image of Pluto to date (below).

A brief history of the discovery of Plutos atmosphere 2
Hubble image from 1994

This, unfortunately, did not provide any useful information regarding the atmosphere.

I had to wait another 21 years…

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past the Pluto system on July 14, 2015, photographing Pluto’s hazy, layered atmosphere (below).

A brief history of the discovery of Plutos atmosphere 3
Color image of part of Pluto showing a layered atmosphere

The image was created using high-resolution black-and-white photographs that were colorized to match the low-resolution color photographs.

Today we know that Pluto has a very rarefied atmosphere, which consists mainly of nitrogen with an admixture of methane (0.25%) and carbon monoxide (less than 0.1%).

Radiation from the Sun, “beating” the Plutonian atmosphere, is responsible for the formation of more complex compounds (acetylene, ethane and ethylene), which form the thinnest haze hovering above the dwarf planet at an altitude of more than 200 kilometers.

It is worth noting that Pluto takes 248 Earth years to make a complete revolution around the Sun. Since its discovery in 1930, Pluto has traveled only 37% of its path.


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