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Pluto Dwarf Planet Pluto
Come wander with me, she said,
Into regions yet untrod;
And read what is still unread
In the manuscripts of God.
- Longfellow

Copyright © 1998-2015 by Rosanna L. Hamilton. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents
Pluto Introduction
 
Pluto's Moons
 
Pluto Science
 
Other Resources
   

Although Pluto was discovered in 1930, limited information on the distant object delayed a realistic understanding of its characteristics. Pluto is the second largest known dwarf planet and tenth largest orbiting the Sun. From its time of discovery in 1930 to 2006 it was considered to be the ninth planet in the solar system, but because additional objects have been discovered including Eris which is 27% more massive, the IAU reclassified Pluto and the other objects as dwarf planets. The New Horizons spacecraft was launched on January 16, 2006 and will make its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015. This mission will provide an increased amount of information about this peculiar dwarf planet. The uniqueness of Pluto's orbit, rotational relationship with its satellite, spin axis, and light variations all give it a certain appeal.

Pluto is usually farther from the Sun than any of the eight planets; however, due to the eccentricity of its orbit, it is closer than Neptune for 20 years out of its 249 year orbit. Pluto crossed Neptune's orbit January 21, 1979, made its closest approach September 5, 1989, and remained within the orbit of Neptune until February 11, 1999. This will not occur again until September 2226.

As Pluto approaches perihelion it reaches its maximum distance from the ecliptic due to its 17-degree inclination. Thus, it is far above or below the plane of Neptune's orbit. Under these conditions, Pluto and Neptune will not collide and do not approach closer than 18 A.U. to one another.

Pluto's rotation period is 6.387 days, the same as its satellite Charon. Although it is common for a satellite to travel in a synchronous orbit with its planet, Pluto rotates synchronously with the orbit of its satellite. Thus being tidally locked, Pluto and Charon continuously face each other as they travel through space.

Unlike most planets, but similar to Uranus, Pluto rotates with its poles almost in its orbital plane. Pluto's rotational axis is tipped 122 degrees. When Pluto was first discovered, its relatively bright south polar region was the view seen from the Earth. Pluto appeared to grow dim as our viewpoint gradually shifted from nearly pole-on in 1954 to nearly equator-on in 1973. Pluto's equator is now the view seen from Earth.

During the period from 1985 through 1990, Earth was aligned with the orbit of Charon around Pluto such that an eclipse could be observed every Pluto day. This provided opportunity to collect significant data which led to albedo maps defining surface reflectivity, and to the first accurate determination of the sizes of Pluto and Charon, including all the numbers that could be calculated therefrom.

The first eclipses (mutual events) began blocking the north polar region. Later eclipses blocked the equatorial region, and final eclipses blocked Pluto's south polar region. By carefully measuring the brightness over time, it was possible to determine surface features. It was found that Pluto has a highly reflective south polar cap, a dimmer north polar cap, and both bright and dark features in the equatorial region. Pluto's geometric albedo is 0.49 to 0.66, which is much brighter than Charon. Charon's albedo ranges from 0.36 to 0.39.

The eclipses lasted as much as four hours and by carefully timing their beginning and ending, measurements for their diameters were taken. The diameters can also be measured directly to within about 1 percent by more recent images provided by the Hubble Space Telescope. These images resolve the objects to clearly show two separate disks. The improved optics allow us to measure Pluto's diameter as 2,274 kilometers (1413 miles) and Charon's diameter as 1,172 kilometers (728 miles), just over half the size of Pluto. Their average separation is 19,640 km (12,200 miles). That's roughly eight Pluto diameters.

Average separation and orbital period are used to calculate Pluto and Charon's masses. Pluto's mass is about 6.4 x 10-9 solar masses. This is close to 7 (was 12 x's) times the mass of Charon and approximately 0.0021 Earth mass, or a fifth of our moon.

Pluto's average density lies between 1.8 and 2.1 grams per cubic centimeter. It is concluded that Pluto is 50% to 75% rock mixed with ices. Charon's density is 1.2 to 1.3 g/cm3, indicating it contains little rock. The differences in density tell us that Pluto and Charon formed independently, although Charon's numbers derived from HST data are still being challenged by ground based observations. Pluto and Charon's origin remains in the realm of theory.

Pluto's icy surface is 98% nitrogen (N2). Methane (CH4) and traces of carbon monoxide (CO) are also present. The solid methane indicates that Pluto is colder than 70 Kelvin. Pluto's temperature varies widely during the course of its orbit since Pluto can be as close to the sun as 30 AU and as far away as 50 AU. There is a thin atmosphere that freezes and falls to the surface as the planet moves away from the Sun. The atmospheric pressure deduced for Pluto's surface is 1/100,000 that of Earth's surface pressure.

Pluto was officially labeled the ninth planet by the International Astronomical Union in 1930 and named for the Roman god of the underworld. It was the first and only planet to be discovered by an American, Clyde W. Tombaugh. It has since been reclassified as a Dwarf Planet along with Eris and Ceres.

The path toward its discovery is credited to Percival Lowell who founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona and funded three separate searches for "Planet X." Lowell made numerous unsuccessful calculations to find it, believing it could be detected from the effect it would have on Neptune's orbit. Dr. Vesto Slipher, the observatory director, hired Clyde Tombaugh for the third search and Clyde took sets of photographs of the plane of the solar system (ecliptic) one to two weeks apart and looked for anything that shifted against the backdrop of stars. This systematic approach was successful and Pluto was discovered by this young (born 4 Feb 1906) 24 year old Kansas lab assistant on February 18, 1930. Pluto is actually too small to be the "Planet X" Percival Lowell had hoped to find. Pluto's was a serendipitous discovery.

Pluto Statistics
Discovered byClyde W. Tombaugh
Date of discoveryFebruary 18, 1930
Mass (kg)1.27e+22
Mass (Earth = 1)2.125e-03
Equatorial radius (km)1,137
Equatorial radius (Earth = 1)0.1783
Mean density (gm/cm^3)2.05
Mean distance from the Sun (km)5,913,520,000
Mean distance from the Sun (Earth = 1))39.5294
Rotational period (days)-6.3872
Orbital period (years)248.54
Mean orbital velocity (km/sec)4.74
Orbital eccentricity0.2482
Tilt of axis (degrees)122.52
Orbital inclination (degrees)17.148
Equatorial surface gravity (m/sec^2)0.4
Equatorial escape velocity (km/sec)1.22
Visual geometric albedo0.3
Magnitude (Vo)15.12
Atmospheric composition
Methane
Nitrogen
0.3

Animations of Pluto and Charon

Pluto's Big Heart in Color Pluto's Big Heart in Color

Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 13, 2015, when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft's closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The color image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument that was acquired earlier on July 13.

This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the "heart" which measures approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) is complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart's interior appears remarkably featureless -- possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes. (Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Pluto: The Ice Plot Thickens Pluto: The Ice Plot Thickens
The latest spectra from New Horizons Ralph instrument reveal an abundance of methane ice, but with striking differences from place to place across the frozen surface of Pluto.

In the north polar cap, methane ice is diluted in a thick, transparent slab of nitrogen ice resulting in strong absorption of infrared light. In one of the visually dark equatorial patches, the methane ice has shallower infrared absorptions indicative of a very different texture.

An Earthly example of different textures of a frozen substance: a fluffy bank of clean snow is bright white, but compacted polar ice looks blue. New Horizons' surface composition team has begun the intricate process of analyzing Ralph data to determine the detailed compositions of the distinct regions on Pluto.

This is the first detailed image of Pluto from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array, part of the Ralph instrument on New Horizons. The observations were made at three wavelengths of infrared light, which are invisible to the human eye. In this picture, blue corresponds to light of wavelengths 1.62 to 1.70 micrometers, a channel covering a medium-strong absorption band of methane ice, green (1.97 to 2.05 micrometers) represents a channel where methane ice does not absorb light, and red (2.30 to 2.33 micrometers) is a channel where the light is very heavily absorbed by methane ice. The two areas outlined on Pluto show where Ralph observations obtained the spectral traces at the right. Note that the methane absorptions (notable dips) in the spectrum from the northern region are much deeper than the dips in the spectrum from the dark patch. The Ralph data were obtained by New Horizons on July 12, 2015. (Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

The Icy Mountains of Pluto The Icy Mountains of Pluto
New close-up images of a region near Pluto's equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.

The mountains likely formed no more than 100 million years ago -- mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system -- and may still be in the process of building. That suggests the close-up region, which covers less than one percent of Pluto's surface, may still be geologically active today.

The youthful age estimate is based on the lack of craters in this scene. Like the rest of Pluto, this region would presumably have been pummeled by space debris for billions of years and would have once been heavily cratered -- unless recent activity had given the region a facelift, erasing those pockmarks.

Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.

The mountains are probably composed of Pluto's water-ice "bedrock." Although methane and nitrogen ice covers much of the surface of Pluto, these materials are not strong enough to build the mountains. Instead, a stiffer material, most likely water-ice, created the peaks.

The close-up image was taken about 1.5 hours before New Horizons closest approach to Pluto, when the craft was 47,800 miles (770,000 kilometers) from the surface of the planet. The image easily resolves structures smaller than a mile across. (Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Portion of Pluto's Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain) Portion of Pluto's Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain)
This annotated view of a portion of Pluto's Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), named for Earth's first artificial satellite, shows an array of enigmatic features. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs, some of which contain darker materials. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. The blocky appearance of some features is due to compression of the image. (Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Pluto Solar Occultations Pluto Solar Occultations
This figure shows the locations of the sunset and sunrise solar occultations observed by the Alice instrument on the New Horizons spacecraft. The sunset occultation occurred just south of the "heart" region of Pluto, from a range of 30,120 miles (48,200 km), while the sunrise occurred just north of the "whale tail", from a range of 35,650 miles (57,000 km). (Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Portrait of Pluto and Charon Portrait of Pluto and Charon
The latest two full-frame images of Pluto and Charon were collected separately by NASA's New Horizons during approach on July 13 and July 14, 2015. The relative reflectivity, size, separation, and orientations of Pluto and Charon are approximated in this composite image, and they are shown in approximate true color. (Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Frozen Plains in the Heart of Pluto's 'Heart' Frozen Plains in the Heart of Pluto's 'Heart'
In the center left of Pluto's vast heart-shaped feature -- informally named "Tombaugh Regio" -- lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto's icy mountains and has been informally named Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), after Earth's first artificial satellite. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly-shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. The blocky appearance of some features is due to compression of the image. (Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

A Mountain Range within Pluto's 'Heart' A Mountain Range within Pluto's 'Heart'
A newly discovered mountain range lies near the southwestern margin of Pluto's heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region), situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain.

This image was acquired by NASA's New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) and sent back to Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible.

These frozen peaks are estimated to be one-half mile to one mile (1-1.5 kilometers) high, about the same height as the United States' Appalachian Mountains. The Norgay Montes (Norgay Mountains) discovered by New Horizons on July 15 more closely approximate the height of the taller Rocky Mountains

The names of features on Pluto have all been given on an informal basis by the New Horizons team. (Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Pluto and Charon Pluto & Charon
This view of Pluto was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. It shows a rare image of tiny Pluto with its moon Charon, which is slightly smaller than the planet. Because Pluto has not yet been visited by any spacecraft, it remains a mysterious planet. Due to its great distance from the sun, Pluto's surface is believed to reach temperatures as low as -240°C (-400°F). From Pluto's surface, the Sun appears as only a very bright star. (Courtesy NASA)

Dwarf Planets Dwarf Planets
The following images represent the three newly designated dwarf planets. The image of Pluto was rendered from a map created from a servies of Hubble images. Eris is an artistic image, and Ceres is a Hubble telescope image.

(Copyright Calvin J. Hamilton)

Pluto and Charon Hubble Telescope Image
This is the clearest view yet of the distant planet Pluto and its moon, Charon, as revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The image was taken on February 21, 1994, when the planet was 4.4 billion kilometers (2.7 billion miles) from the Earth.

The HST corrected optics show the two objects as clearly separate and sharp disks. This now allows astronomers to measure directly (to within about 1 percent) Pluto's diameter of 2,320 kilometers (1,440 miles) and Charon's diameter of 1,270 kilometers (790 miles).

The HST observations show that Charon is bluer than Pluto. This means that the worlds have different surface composition and structure. A bright highlight on Pluto indicates that it might have a smoothly reflecting surface layer. A detailed analysis of the HST image also suggests that there is a bright area parallel to the equator of Pluto. However, subsequent observations are needed to confirm that this feature is real. The new HST image was taken when Charon was near its maximum elongation from Pluto (0.9 arcseconds). The two worlds are 19,640 kilometers (12,200 miles) apart. (Courtesy NASA/ESA/ESO)

Pluto The Surface of Pluto
The never-before-seen surface of the distant planet Pluto is resolved in these NASA Hubble Space Telescope pictures. These images, which were made in blue light, show that Pluto is an unusually complex object, with more large-scale contrast than any planet, except Earth. Pluto probably shows even more contrast and perhaps sharper boundaries between light and dark areas than is shown here, but Hubble's resolution (just like early telescopic views of Mars) tends to blur edges and blend together small features sitting inside larger ones.

The two smaller inset pictures at the top are actual images from Hubble. North is up. Each square pixel (picture element) is more than 100 miles across. At this resolution, Hubble discerns roughly 12 major "regions" where the surface is either bright or dark. The larger images (bottom) are from a global map constructed through computer image processing performed on the Hubble data. Opposite hemispheres of Pluto are seen in these two views. (Courtesy NASA/ESA/ESO)

Pluto and Charon Pluto, Charon, and USA Comparison
This image shows the approximate size of Pluto and Charon by overlaying them on an Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) image of the United States of America. Pluto is about 2274 kilometers (1410 miles) in diameter and Charon 1172 kilometers (727 miles) in diameter. The image of Pluto is based upon Hubble observations taken of Pluto in June and July of 1994. The Charon image is based upon photometric measurements acquired by Marc Buie of Lowell Observatory. (Copyright 1998 by Calvin J. Hamilton)

Pluto Map of the Surface of Pluto
This is the first image-based surface map of the solar system's most remote planet, Pluto. The map, which covers 85% of the planet's surface, confirms that Pluto has a dark equatorial belt and bright polar caps, as inferred from ground-based light curves obtained during the mutual eclipses that occurred between Pluto and its satellite Charon in the late 1980s.

The brightness variations in this map may be due to topographic features such as basins and fresh impact craters. However, most of the surface features are likely produced by the complex distribution of frosts that migrate across Pluto's surface with its orbital and seasonal cycles and chemical byproducts deposited out of Pluto's nitrogen-methane atmosphere. Names may later be proposed for some of the larger regions.

Image reconstruction techniques smooth out the coarse pixels in the four raw images to reveal major regions where the surface is either bright or dark. The black strip across the bottom corresponds to the region surrounding Pluto's south pole, which was pointed away from Earth when the observations were made, and could not be imaged. (Courtesy NASA/ESA/ESO)

Pluto Ground vs. Hubble Comparison
This image shows a comparison between a ground based view (left) and a Hubble Space Telescope view (right) of Pluto and Charon.

Pluto Nordic Optical Telescope
This image of Pluto was taken with the 2.6 meter Nordic Optical Telescope, located at La Palma, Canary Islands. It is a good example of the best imagery that can be obtained from Earth-based telescopes. (© Copyright Nordic Optical Telescope Scientific Association -- NOTSA)

New Horizons New Horizons: Pluto/Charon Mission
Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during its planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon. The craft's miniature cameras, radio science experiment, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers and space plasma experiments would characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmosphere in detail. The spacecraft's most prominent design feature is a nearly 7-foot (2.1-meter) dish antenna, through which it would communicate with Earth from as far as 4.7 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) away. (Courtesy NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

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