Pluto orbits beyond the orbit of Neptune (usually). It is much smaller than any of the official planets and now classified as a “dwarf planet”. Pluto is smaller than seven of the solar system’s moons (the Moon, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan and Triton).
orbit: 5,913,520,000 km (39.5 AU) from the Sun (average)
diameter: 2372 km
mass: 1.303e22 kg
History of Pluto
In Roman mythology, Pluto (Greek: Hades) is the god of the underworld. The planet received this name (after many other suggestions) perhaps because it’s so far from the Sun that it is in perpetual darkness and perhaps because “PL” are the initials of Percival Lowell.
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by a fortunate accident. Calculations which later turned out to be in error had predicted a planet beyond Neptune, based on the motions of Uranus and Neptune. Not knowing of the error, Clyde W. Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory in Arizona did a very careful sky survey which turned up Pluto anyway.
After the discovery of Pluto, it was quickly determined that Pluto was too small to account for the discrepancies in the orbits of the other planets. The search for Planet X continued but nothing was found. Nor is it likely that it ever will be: the discrepancies vanish if the mass of Neptune determined from the Voyager 2 encounter with Neptune is used. There is no Planet X. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other objects out there, only that there isn’t a relatively large and close one like Planet X was assumed to be. In fact, we now know that there are a very large number of small objects in the Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune, some roughly the same size as Pluto.
Until 2015 even the Hubble Space Telescope was able to resolve only the largest features on its surface (left and above). On 14 July 2015 the New Horizons spacecraft did a flyby of Pluto after being launched.
Pluto has five moons: Charon, Hydra, Nix, Kerberos, Styx.
Charon – 1,208 km
Hydra – 55 km x 40 km
Nix – 42 km x 36 km
Kerberos – 12 km x 4.5 km
Styx – 7 km x 3 km
Family of Moons
Until the visit by New Horizons the individual masses of Pluto and Charon could not be determined with great accuracy.Pluto and Charon size comparisons by New Horizons:
Diameter Mass Density
Pluto 2372 km 1.303e22 kg 1.860 +/- 0.013 g/cm
Charon 1208 km 1.586e21 kg 1.702 +/- 0.021 g/cm
The Pluto-Charon pair orbit about each other around a common center of mass called the barycenter.
Pluto has an atmosphere consisting of mainly nitrogen extending to 1,600 km above the surface. Methane is another constituent of the atmosphere and it is likely caused by sunlight breaking down methane gas particles into ethylene and acetylene, which were also discovered by New Horizons. As the ethylene and acetylene sink into the atmosphere they condense and create a haze. In fact two distinct layers of haze surround the planet, one starting at about 80 km above the surface and extending to 130 km, the other is lower at an altitude of 50 km. New Horizons captured this image of the haze layers.
The ultraviolet sunlight also acts on the haze converting it to tholins which are dark hydrocarbons and gives Pluto its characteristic color.
Pluto has a heart shaped region called Sputnik Planum. The region is composed of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices. These ices flow like glaciers in the minus 234 C environment. The glaciers are thought to flow just as glaciers here on Earth do, although water ices on Pluto is very hard and virtually immovable.New Horizons sent back images from the edge of Sputnik Planum showing the tell-tale signs of glacial flow.
Question: Pluto has a surface pressure over 10,000 times less than Earth, it has a atmosphere consisting of 98 percent Nitrogen. It has been determined Pluto is losing Nitrogen from its atmosphere at a rate in the order of tons per hour, yet we have nitrogen glaciers. Where does all the nitrogen come from?Could cometary impacts be replenishing the nitrogen directly or possibly excavating enough nitrogen ices for replenishment? It could also be enough residual heat internal to Pluto and geologic activity is releasing nitrogen from within Pluto itself. As more data from New Horizons is downloaded we may find out.
Pluto is the second most contrasty body in the Solar System (after Iapetus).
There has been controversy about the classification of Pluto. It was classified as the ninth planet shortly after its discovery and remained so for 75 years. But on 2006 Aug 24 the IAU decided on a new definition of “planet” which does not include Pluto. Pluto is now classified as a “dwarf planet”, a class distinct from “planet”. While this may be controversial at first (and certainly causes confusion for the name of this website) it is my hope that this ends the essentially empty debate about Pluto’s status so that we can get on with the real science of figuring out its physical nature and history.
Pluto has been assigned number 134340 in the minor planet catalog.
Pluto’s orbit is highly eccentric. At times it is closer to the Sun than Neptune (as it was from January 1979 thru February 11 1999). Pluto rotates in the opposite direction from most of the other planets.
Pluto is locked in a 3:2 resonance with Neptune; i.e. Pluto’s orbital period is exactly 1.5 times longer than Neptune’s. Its orbital inclination is also much higher than the other planets’. Thus though it appears that Pluto’s orbit crosses Neptune’s, it really doesn’t and they will never collide. (Here is a more detailed explanation.)
Like Uranus, the plane of Pluto’s equator is at almost right angles to the plane of its orbit.
The surface temperature on Pluto varies between about -235 and -210 C (38 to 63 K). The “warmer” regions roughly correspond to the regions that appear darker in optical wavelengths.
The unusual nature of the orbits of Pluto and of Triton and the similarity of bulk properties between Pluto and Triton suggest some historical connection between them. It was once thought that Pluto may have once been a satellite of Neptune’s, but this now seems unlikely. A more popular idea is that Triton, like Pluto, once moved in an independent orbit around the Sun and was later captured by Neptune. Perhaps Triton, Pluto and Charon are the only remaining members of a large class of similar objects the rest of which were ejected into the Oort cloud. Like the Earth’s Moon, Charon may be the result of a collision between Pluto and another body.
Pluto can be seen with an amateur telescope but it is not easy. There are several Web sites that show the current position of Pluto (and the other planets) in the sky, but much more detailed charts and careful observations over several days will be required to reliably find it. Suitable charts can be created with many planetarium programs.
Charon ( “KAIR en” ) is Pluto’s largest satellite:
orbit: 19,500 km from Pluto(average) diameter: 1208 km mass: 1.586e21 kg
Charon is named for the mythological figure who ferried the dead across the River Acheron into Hades (the underworld).
(Though officially named for the mythological figure, Charon’s discoverer was also naming it in honor of his wife, Charlene. Thus, those in the know pronounce it with the first syllable sounding like ‘shard’ (“SHAHR en”).
Charon was discovered in 1978 by Jim Christy. Prior to that it was thought that Pluto was much larger since the images of Charon and Pluto were blurred together.
Charon is unusual in that it is the largest moon with respect to its primary planet in the Solar System (a distinction once held by Earth’s Moon). Some prefer to think of Pluto/Charon as a double planet rather than a planet and a moon.
Charon is a little over half the diameter of Pluto (50.9 percent) and has a very different surface composition than Pluto. Pluto is mainly nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide ices, Charon is more water ice.
Charon’s radius is not well known. JPL’s value of 586 has an error margin of +/-13, more than two percent. Its mass and density are also poorly known.
Pluto and Charon are also unique in that not only does Charon rotate synchronously but Pluto does, too: they both keep the same face toward one another. (This makes the phases of Charon as seen from Pluto very interesting.)Charon’s composition is unknown, but its low density (about 2 gm/cm3) indicates that it may be similar to Saturn’s icy moons (i.e. Rhea). Its surface seems to be covered with water ice. Interestingly, this is quite different from Pluto.
Unlike Pluto, Charon does not have large albedo features, though it may have smaller ones that have not been resolved.
Charon has a massive “canyon” across more than 1,600 km its equatorial region almost as if the moon was nearly split in two. It has been proposed that Charon was formed by a giant impact similar to the one that formed Earth’s Moon
The New Horizons team also discovered the plains south of the canyon called the Vulcan Plaum have noticeably fewer craters than the north so they are younger and the smooth plains along with the grooves and faint ridges are tell-tale signs of wide scale resurfacing. Could this be explained by cryovolcanism? Possibly further data from New Horizons will shed light on this mystery.
Interesting Facts about Pluto
- Pluto was discovered in 1930. It was seen using a telescope as it is too far away from Earth to be seen without the use of equipment.
- Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh and was initially thought to be a ninth planet. However, even then people were unsure as to whether or not it could be classed as a planet like the other eight in the solar system.
- Pluto does not orbit the Sun like other planets in the solar system. Instead of taking a clear path around the sun Pluto goes in more of an oval and has a tilted orbit when compared with other planets. This means not only does Pluto get closer and further away from the Sun, but it is also higher in the solar system on one side of the Sun than the other. Pluto spends 22 years of its orbit closer to the Sun than Neptune. This last happened between 1979 and 1999 and will happen again in 2227.
- It takes 248 Earth years for Pluto to orbit the Sun. This means that Pluto hasn’t made a full trip around the Sun since it was found in 1930. Scientists have predicted its orbit path.
- Pluto takes 153.3 hours to rotate on its axis. This means a day on Pluto is 6.4 Earth days.
- Pluto is in the Kuiper Belt. This is an area in space containing thousands of objects orbiting the sun. Most of these are very small and made of ice. It is sometimes called the “Third Zone” and is the space further away from the sun than Neptune.
- Pluto is 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers) in diameter. This is quite small compared to the other eight planets in the Solar System apart from Mercury which is even smaller.
- Pluto gets its name from the Roman god of the underworld. The name was chosen by a young girl in England who was only 11 at the time. Her name was Venetia Burney.
- In 2006 it was decided that Pluto should no longer be classed as a planet. It is now called a dwarf planet. The decision was made after another dwarf planet named Eris was discovered in 2003 and astronomers began to talk about what makes a planet a planet. This was mostly their size, location and ability to clear their orbit path. Clearing an orbit path is where a planet has enough gravity to push other items out of its way or bring them into their atmosphere. There are five dwarf planets in total. The others are called Makemake, Ceres and Haumea.
- Of the dwarf planets, Pluto is the second closest to the Sun. Ceres is the closest.
Pluto is the second largest of the dwarf planets with Eris being the biggest by roughly 24 miles (40 kilometres) difference in their diameters.
- Pluto has 5 known moons. These are named Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. Charon is the largest of the five and is similar to the Earth’s moon – this makes it about half the size of Pluto itself. Both are tidally locked to their planets meaning the same side of the moon faces the planet at all times.
- The first spacecraft to visit Pluto was a NASA mission called New Horizons and flew by the dwarf planet in July 2015. The probe was the fastest spacecraft ever launched and left Earth on the 19th of January 2006. The mission is not over and is planned to continue until 2026 after spending a few years looking at objects in the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft is carrying a small container holding the ashes of
- Clyde Tombaugh who first discovered the dwarf planet.
- Pluto is grey with a slight red tinge to it. Scientists were expecting it to be a dark, bluish, icy planet and were surprised to discover its rusty tint – not too different from the colours of Mars.
- The photos revealed that Pluto has a heart shape on it! This heart shape is thought to be made of ice and is changing over time. This region of the planet is now called the Tombaugh Reggio and does not have the craters that are found on the rest of the planet. This makes it likely that this region is much younger than Pluto itself and is probably no older than 100 million years. That is pretty young as far as planets go!
- Pluto’s atmosphere is made up mostly of nitrogen. There are also low levels of carbon monoxide and methane. This atmosphere grows bigger as the planet gets closer to the sun in its unusual orbit and some of the ice on the surface evaporates.
- Below all of the gas is a rocky core covered in ice. New information has been gathered by New Horizons on Pluto’s atmosphere that shows it to be much thinner than had been predicted. There is still a lot to learn about this; hopefully, New Horizons collected enough data to answer many questions.
- Pluto has ice caps. People have thought for a long time that Pluto has ice caps, and the pictures from New Horizons has proved them right. The other planets with ice caps are Earth and Mars.
- Pluto has mountains as tall as 3,500 metres (11,000 feet). Scientists think these are formed on top of layers of water and ice. Mountains on planets are usually surrounded by craters but not on Pluto, not many were discovered from the images sent back from the spacecraft. This could mean that there had been a recent geological activity (still millions of years ago!) on the dwarf planet which would have smoothed the craters out.
- We do not know if Pluto has a magnetic field or not. Scientists think it probably does not have one because of how small it is and the fact that it rotates on its axis so slowly.
- Pluto is surrounded by a thick and very visible haze. This was only discovered once the New Horizons spacecraft had already passed
- Pluto and took a photo looking back towards the dwarf planet. Little is known about the haze at this point, but it is very different to what scientists were expecting to see.
- New Horizons got closest to Pluto on the 14th of July. This allowed the spacecraft to take photos of the planet’s surface with detail that had never been seen before. Information will be downloaded until 2017 due to the distance of the spacecraft from Earth. There is still lots more information to receive and exciting things to learn about Pluto!
More about Pluto and Charon
- more Pluto/Charon images
- Why Pluto is is not a planet
- Pluto in color
- Pluto and its moons from HST
- Keck AO image
- Suburu images
- Pluto, Charon and the Kuiper Belt
- from ASU
- the debate about Pluto’s status from the IAU
- Pluto, the Ninth Planet from Mark Buie (Mr. Pluto)
- The Struggles to Find the Ninth Planet by Clyde W. Tombaugh
- Planet X, a song about Pluto by Christine Lavin
- stellar occultation by Charon
- Nix and Hydra