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.

Comments closed
    • DrCR
    • 10 years ago

    So just believing it makes it so? That never worked in hide-and-go-seek when I was 3. 😉

    Edit: Re #7.

    On a side note, what do you want to bet that the TR community could build a prob for less that $20k that would give a better result (launch costs not included).

    • drsauced
    • 10 years ago

    With all this technology, will scientists ever find one made of cheese?

    • Wirko
    • 10 years ago

    It’s quite probable that Mr. Buie used thousands, or tens of thousands, of Pluto’s images but they contained just a few pixels of useful data each – so where’s the incredible amount of data that kept his computers busy for years?

    • DreadCthulhu
    • 10 years ago

    I wonder how long it will be until they can get pictures this good of Eris. And for that matter, how long will it be before people start using Eris in science fiction works.

    • yogibbear
    • 10 years ago

    Looks sorta like earth if i squint a bit… yeah i know it’s just the effect of the photos but whatever… i can dream…

    • Meadows
    • 10 years ago

    If you ask me, this is /[

      • xtalentx
      • 10 years ago

      Good thing no one did ask you or cares…

    • BoBzeBuilder
    • 10 years ago

    Dang, I wish I was born 500 years from now. I want to visit outer space.

      • Ardrid
      • 10 years ago

      You and me both my friend.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 10 years ago

      Become a Hindu and don’t behave particularly well and you could have your wish!

        • pullmyfoot
        • 10 years ago

        or a buddhist for that matter.

          • MadManOriginal
          • 10 years ago

          Buddhist reincarnation isn’t quite the same although that’s what I was going to write at first.

    • Jambe
    • 10 years ago

    Cool. There was a neat podcast on the 23rd about volcanism, space exploration, Cassini and New Horizons. It was Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour with Leo Laporte and the guest was Dr. Rosaly Lopes (a planetary geologist, among other things). Ice volcanoes, sulfur volcanoes, the hexagonal cloud formation on Saturn’s pole, the ins and outs of what Cassini learned about various moons, etc — interesting.

    §[< http://twit.tv/kiki31<]§

    • Krogoth
    • 10 years ago

    It is starting to look more and more like Triton. 😉

      • Meadows
      • 10 years ago

      It’s not “starting” anything, Pluto still looks the same.

        • Krogoth
        • 10 years ago

        Triton (Neptune’s largest moon) has always been the prototype for what we expected to see with Pluto.

    • Vasilyfav
    • 10 years ago

    It looks like that because the mass effect relay in charon is doing some scientific thingamajigery to it.

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