Pluto Is A 'Giant Comet'

Posted: May 27 2018, 12:34am CDT | by , Updated: May 27 2018, 12:36am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Pluto Is a Giant Comet
Credit:Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Researchers have developed a new theory about how Pluto may have formed at the edge of our solar system.

Pluto is an unusual object as it is mostly made of ice and is even smaller than the Earth’s moon. Pluto’s status as a dwarf planet has already been the source of much debate in the scientific community. Now, an unusual theory has been proposed to explain how the icy world formed. According to the new method, Pluto is made of a billion comets, and the clues lie in its chemical composition.

“We’ve developed what we call “the giant comet” cosmochemical model of Pluto formation,” said Dr. Christopher Glein from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). “We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”

Nitrogen is the main constituent of Pluto’s atmosphere, though traces of methane and carbon monoxide have also been detected. The dwarf planet has a nitrogen-covered glacier which is informally named Sputnik Planitia. The massive glacier formed the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto's surface and was rightly the focus of intense research. Using New Horizons data, researchers estimated how much nitrogen and other chemicals exist on Pluto’s atmosphere and surface and how much may have leaked into space. The proportion of carbon monoxide to nitrogen provided a complete picture of the dwarf planet’s composition.

"Our research suggests that Pluto's initial chemical makeup, inherited from cometary building blocks, was chemically modified by liquid water, perhaps even in a subsurface ocean," said Glein. "This research builds upon the fantastic successes of the New Horizons and Rosetta missions to expand our understanding of the origin and evolution of Pluto. Using chemistry as a detective's tool, we can trace certain features we see on Pluto today to formation processes from long ago. This leads to a new appreciation of the richness of Pluto's 'life story,' which we are only starting to grasp."

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