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Pluto bizarre planet at the boundaries of the Solar System. Mountains, glaciers, atmosphere: the New Horizons dwarf planet discovered oddities that we still can not explain. One of Pluto‘s features that most surprised the scientists was the division into layers of its atmosphere. 

Pluto bizarre planet at the boundaries of the Solar System.

In the early 2000s, when asked what he would find the New Horizons spacecraft when it reaches Pluto, the planetary scientist Alan Stern refused to make predictions. She replied only: “Something wonderful.” And indeed, when last July has “touched” the dwarf planet, passing about 50,000 kilometers per hour, the probe discovered extraordinary features: a varied landscape and tormented, that belies the image of Pluto prevailing so far – a piece of inert and icy rock at the extreme limits of the solar system – and suggests that it is rather a celestial body “living”, with an intense geological activity. Three months after the passage of New Horizons, scientists are only beginning to pull the strings of the many observations of Pluto and Charon, his large and equally bizarre satellite.

Pluto bizarre planet at the boundaries of the Solar System.

But initial results, described in an article published in Science, are impressive, and many puzzling verses. The images and data collected by spectrometers and other instruments aboard the spacecraft reveal that the substrate of the planet – including mountains exceeding 3,000 meters – is composed of water ice covered almost everywhere by other frozen substances: nitrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. The steep slopes of the mountains, those other ices are no more than a light dusting: O has never been covered or the lightest ice slip away. But a clearer region, flat, heart-shaped, Tombaugh named Regio, is almost entirely covered by a layer of ice thicker. It’s a significant portion, said Sputnik Planum, is particularly smooth. We can not find even an impact crater. Unthinkable that Pluto has never been hit by huge fragments of rock or ice that have always whizzing in its vicinity: the only explanation is that the area has been “redesigned” in relatively recent geological times, maybe even less than 100 million of years ago. In turn, this is only possible if Pluto has a different heat source from the Sun: the energy of our star, which is over five billion kilometers, would not be enough. 

Pluto bizarre planet at the boundaries of the Solar System.

In the Solar System there are icy bodies – as I, one of the moons of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn – where geysers and volcanoes erupt, but there the heat is generated by friction caused by tidal forces, which in turn generated from great mass of the planets around which they orbit.

Pluto bizarre planet at the boundaries of the Solar System.

But Pluto is sitting there all alone. Charon and its other moons have sufficient mass to generate enough heat. A heat Pluto may be the decay of radioactive minerals, such as uranium, contained in the rocky core that constitutes more than half of the mass of the dwarf planet. It is a plausible hypothesis, at least in part. A heat source located under the ice, not water the Tombaugh Regio, for example, it might have caused the slow slip – as with glaciers or ice caps on Earth – by creating the strange formations “to” visible patches on Sputnik Planum. But the heat from radioactivity can not explain the formation of the mountains to the Sputnik Planum limits. A five billion kilometers from the Sun, the water ice is as hard as rock, and need a lot of energy to push it to such heights above the surrounding terrain. It is unclear what the origin of these mountains, but they are there, and something must have created them. For now, we are still perplexed. Another mystery Plutonian is the gas layer that forms around the dwarf planet in the sections closest to the Sun in its orbit oval and elongated. In theory, when the planet moves away from the Sun, the atmosphere – composed mainly of nitrogen and, to a lesser extent, carbon dioxide – should freeze and wrap the planet’s surface. But telescopic observations made since 1989 – the time of closest approach to the Sun than Pluto – to date showed that the density of the atmosphere had not changed, which made him think that the gas layer is not returned in the solid state. Measurements of New Horizons have given different information: the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Pluto is less than half compared to the calculations of astronomers. Another surprise for the scientists was the discovery that the atmosphere was divided into distinct layers. What is the cause? No one knows. They also found furrows by the wind on the surface, and similar formations in the dunes, which suggests that in the past the atmosphere was much denser, a little ‘as that of Mars. It will take time to solve all these doubts. So far the probe has sent back to Earth only about 15 percent of the data and images collected when he flew over Pluto. We are still at early acquisitions. The very detailed analyses are still to come.

Pluto bizarre planet at the boundaries of the Solar System.

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To open the video click on the image, good view from your Alessandro Brizzi.



Pluto bizarre planet at the boundaries of the Solar System.