Western Slope Skies - Pluto Update

Jul 15, 2016

Credit NASA

One year ago, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its historic flyby of Pluto.

While New Horizons is now more than 200 million miles beyond Pluto, transmission of data gathered during the flyby won’t be complete until the end of this year, meaning that the icy world continues to reveal new secrets. The data and images returned so far have transformed Pluto from a featureless grey orb into a unique and fascinating world, complete with many features recognizable to any earthling.

Like Earth, Pluto has ice, and lots of it, yet not the kind you would find in a glass of iced tea. Pluto is so cold that substances we think of as gases here on Earth - such as nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane - coat Pluto’s surface in a menagerie of ices that often flow and snake across its surface, much like glaciers do here on Earth.

Like Earth, Pluto has mountains - mountains that rival the Rockies in height, yet are made not of rock, but of water ice pushed up from Pluto’s interior by still-poorly-understood forces. Some of the highest peaks even appear to be coated in dustings of methane snow. No word from New Horizons on the price of lift tickets…

Like Earth, Pluto has an atmosphere dominated by nitrogen gas. Despite the chemical similarities, atmospheric pressure on Pluto is roughly one million times weaker than it is on Earth. Without a space suit you would suffocate in an instant.

Like Earth, Pluto is its own unique world, one that is at once both familiar and alien. New Horizons now heads on to another mysterious ice world in the outer solar system, an object known only by its catalog number: 2014 MU69. When it arrives in 2019, what will it find? The only thing we can say with certainty is that there will be both surprises and features that remind us of our own home in space.

Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written by Zach Schierl and recorded by Bryan Cashion.