Data from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) find Pluto’s hazy atmosphere may be surprisingly robust.
Most of what we know about Pluto’s atmosphere is because of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft that passed by Pluto in 2015.
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The New Horizons mission brought us plenty of beautiful images from the flyby. One of them is the image above showing the amazing layers of blue haze in the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.
The thin atmosphere of Pluto is predominantly nitrogen gas, along with small amounts of methane and carbon monoxide. The thin shell of air is generated by the vaporization of surface ices which is driven by sunlight. But the intensity of sunlight varies greatly during Pluto’s highly elliptical, 248-year-long orbit around the sun.
That’s why a lot of scientists thought the atmosphere of Pluto changes dramatically, probably even collapsing completely when the dwarf planet is at its farthest from the sun.
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However, new clues coming from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) may change what scientists think about such notions.
“Pluto is a mysterious object that is constantly surprising us,” said Michael Person, the lead author of the paper and director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Wallace Astrophysical Observatory. “There had been hints in earlier remote observations that there might be haze, but there wasn’t strong evidence to confirm it really existed until the data came from SOFIA. Now we’re questioning if Pluto’s atmosphere is going to collapse in the coming years – it may be more resilient than we thought.”
Scientists made their observations using NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a Boeing 747SP jetliner carrying a 106-inch diameter telescope, during a rare eclipse-like occultation of a star by Pluto.
This “occultation” was visible for just 2 minutes. And only from a small patch of the Pacific Ocean near New Zealand.
Observations show that the thin haze enshrouding Pluto consists of very small particles. These particles hang about in the atmosphere for prolonged periods rather than immediately falling to the surface. Data from SOFIA also show that these haze particles are actively being replenished.
SOFIA studied Pluto just two weeks before New Horizon’s flyby in July 2015.
SOFIA studied the middle layers of the dwarf planet’s atmosphere in the infrared and visible light wavelengths. And soon after, the New Horizons spacecraft gathered information about the upper and lower layers, in radio and ultraviolet frequencies.
“These combined observations, taken so close in time, have provided the most complete picture yet of Pluto’s atmosphere,” NASA officials wrote in the same statement.
The researchers published their study online in the journal Icarus.