Scientists Explain Why Pluto Is So Cold

Posted: Nov 19 2017, 2:25pm CST | by , Updated: Nov 19 2017, 2:27pm CST, in News | Latest Science News

 
Scientists Explain Why Pluto is So Cold
An artist’s impression shows a view of the moon Charon through Pluto's atmospheric haze. Credit: X. Liu

Layer of haze is keeping Pluto super cold, says study

Pluto is an extremely cold world. It lies far away from Earth and has temperatures cold enough to freeze our planet’s air.

When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft arrived at Pluto in 2015, it discovered that the atmospheric temperature of the planet is about 70 degrees above absolute zero. That’s around 30 degrees colder than anticipated and it has been puzzling scientists ever since.

Now, researchers have found that a novel cooling mechanism controlled by haze particles is responsible for Pluto's frigid atmosphere. The haze particles in Pluto's atmosphere absorb solar energy and radiate it into space. The process keeps Pluto’s atmospheric temperatures extremely cold.

“It's been a mystery since we first got the temperature data from New Horizons," said study co-author Xi Zhang from UC Santa Cruz. "Pluto is the first planetary body we know of where the atmospheric energy budget is dominated by solid-phase haze particles instead of by gases."

Pluto’s atmosphere is made mostly of nitrogen and small amount of methane. When sun's ultraviolet rays break down theses gases in Pluto's atmosphere, they create thick layers of haze. The layers of haze can also be seen in images of Pluto taken by New Horizons spacecraft.

Previous studies have suggested that the presence of gas molecules could contribute to Pluto’s extremely old atmosphere. When researchers compared the heating and cooling effects of the atmosphere’s gas molecules to those of its haze particles, they found that inclusion of haze is the only way to get their model to match Pluto’s actual measurements taken by New Horizons spacecraft.

And the hypothesis could be confirmed with the launch of James Webb Telescope in 2019. If the haze particles are indeed the main reason behind cooling Pluto’s atmosphere, the dwarf planet would appear relatively bright in mid-infrared wavelengths.

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