Saturday science subject: Pluto's surface

Pluto may have lost its status as a bona-fide planet back in 2006, but that hasn't quelled the interest of astronomers. Discovery News reports that Marc Buie, a researcher at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, has put together "the most detailed view of Pluto ever" thanks to images from the Hubble space telescope.

Source: HubbleSite.

The shots above may not look all that sharp, but they're a big improvement over previous imagery. Keep in mind that Pluto is only two thirds the size of the moon, and according to Wolfram Alpha, it's currently about 12,400 times farther away, near the very edge of our solar system. Buie's task took four years and 20 computers operating continuously, and Discovery News compares it to "trying to see the markings on a soccer ball 40 miles away."

HubbleSite says Buie obtained the images by combining multiple shots of the dwarf planet to yield more detail than a single exposure.

What do these new photos tell us? Quite a bit, apparently. Discovery News explains that researchers have been able to compare them to shots from 1994 in order to learn more about Pluto:

Pluto's coloring is believed to be a result of ultraviolet radiation from the distant Sun breaking up methane that is present on Pluto's surface, leaving behind a dark molasses-colored carbon-rich residue. This material, called "Tholin" (Greek for "mud"), is found on other icy minor bodies but not Earth.

Astronomers were very [surprised] to seen that Pluto's brightness has changed over a few years. The northern pole is brighter and the southern hemisphere darker and redder. Summer is approaching Pluto's north pole and this may cause surface ices to melt and refreeze in the colder shadowed southern pole of the planet.

Only two other solar system bodies go through a comparable range of visible surface changes based on the melting or sublimation of ices: Earth and Mars.

We'll hopefully get some more eye candy in about five years. That's when NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will make its first flyby of Pluto.

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