New analysis finds that Pluto behaves less like a comet as was commonly assumed and somewhat more like a larger planet in our solar system.
Scientists have been amazed to find new aspects about the atmosphere of dwarf planet Pluto. They have found that Pluto behaves unlike anything dwarf and it interacts with solar wind similar to larger planets in our solar system like Mars or Venus.
During the historic flyby of Pluto in July 2015, researchers from New Horizons’ spacecraft examined the material coming off Pluto’s atmosphere via Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument and attempted to find out how the dwarf planet interacts with solar wind or stream of charged particles released from the upper atmosphere of the Sun. Using SWAP instrument, researchers were able to distinguish the heavy ions of methane – the main gas released from Pluto’s atmosphere – and light ions of hydrogen ejecting from the Sun, which led them to yet another surprise.
“This is the type of interaction we’ve never seen before anywhere in our solar system. The results are astonishing.” David J. McComas, lead author of the study and professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University said. “The range of interaction with the solar wind is quite diverse and this gives some comparison to help us better understand the connections in our solar system and beyond.”
In the very first analysis of such kind, researchers found that Pluto deals with solar wind much like that of a planet which is contrary to what was previously assumed. It was long thought that Pluto’s interaction with solar wind is subtle like the way a comet encounters solar wind but it turned out that the dwarf planet diverts solar wind abruptly like a planet with heavier mass. Now, scientists are claiming that Pluto is a hybrid like a car that runs on both battery and gas.
Since Pluto is small, scientists thought that its gravity would not be strong enough to hold heavy ions in its atmosphere. But it was found that it was clearly enough to retain the material.
“Comparing the solar-wind Pluto interaction to the solar wind-interaction for other planets and bodies is interesting because the physical conditions are different for each, and the dominant physical processes depend on those conditions.” Co-author Heather Elliott said.
Pluto is the farthest planet in our solar system and is known for its diverse geology and compositional features. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is assigned to explore the diverse body in our solar system. It made its closest approach to the dwarf plant in July last year and ever since it keeps on surprising scientists.
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“These results speak to the power of exploration,” said Alan Stern from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI’s). “Once again we’ve gone to a new kind of place and found ourselves discovering entirely new kinds of expressions in nature.”