NOV 16, 2017 8:55 AM PST

Mysterious Atmospheric Haze Keeps Pluto Colder Than Initially Anticipated

WRITTEN BY: Anthony Bouchard

Although Pluto resides 40 times more distant from the Sun than the Earth, the once-planet turned dwarf planet appears to be much colder than initially predicted. Now, data obtained by NASA’s New Horizons probe during the 2015 Pluto flyby is helping us understand why that is.

Here we see Pluto's hazy atmosphere, as pictured from New Horizons in 2015.

Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

New Horizons grabbed remarkably-sharp images of Pluto’s surface and sampled the dwarf planet’s atmosphere during the historic flyby event. The data scientists received indicated that Pluto has a hazy atmosphere, much like the one presented in the New Horizons image above.

Researchers based out of the University of California Santa Cruz now suggest that this haze could be responsible for keeping Pluto so chilly. They’ve published their findings in the journal Nature this week.

Related: Infographic: What About Pluto?

Even at the outskirts of the solar system, where our Sun’s light is dim and ineffective at heating planetary surfaces, we’d expect Pluto to maintain a surface temperature of approximately -280º Fahrenheit. Instead, Pluto’s surface temperature is closer to -333º Fahrenheit.

With all things considered, the -280º figure should be spot-on if the Sun’s rays actually made it to Pluto’s surface. On the other hand, the researchers suggest that Pluto’s hazy, atomized atmosphere could scatter the Sun’s light and reflect it back into space as infrared radiation; this would prevent it from ever touching and warming the surface.

"It's been a mystery since we first got the temperature data from New Horizons," said Xi Zhang from the University of California Santa Cruz, the study’s first author. "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."

Related: What would it be like to land on Pluto?

Sunlight purportedly ionizes methane and nitrogen from Pluto’s atmosphere, provoking a chemical reaction that forms hydrocarbon particles. These particles then land on the surface, developing the brown and red-looking deposits seen all around Pluto’s surface in many of the New Horizons images.

This image shows the brown and red deposits al over Pluto's surface.

Image Credit: NASA

As Zhang points out, the James Webb Space Telescope could validate these claims. It’s built specifically for detecting infrared light, and a quick glance could let us know whether Pluto emits high amounts of infrared light from the suggested process or not.

Understanding how the Sun interacts with Pluto’s hazy atmosphere would not only answer questions concerning Pluto, but it could also teach us more about how exoplanets’ atmosphere interact with radiation from their host stars.

It should be interesting to learn once and for all whether the haze is responsible for Pluto's colder-than-anticipated temperatures, but we’ll have to wait a little longer to find out for sure.

Source: University of California Santa Cruz

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
You May Also Like
MAR 16, 2020
Space & Astronomy
What Would it Take to Visit Alpha Centauri?
MAR 16, 2020
What Would it Take to Visit Alpha Centauri?
Humankind has long pondered upon the ambition of becoming a multiplanetary species. While much of our realistic focus re ...
APR 12, 2020
Space & Astronomy
Three New Crew Members Arrive at the International Space Station
APR 12, 2020
Three New Crew Members Arrive at the International Space Station
The International Space Station received three new crew members this past week following extensive pre-quarantine measur ...
APR 30, 2020
Earth & The Environment
NASA's Laser Satellites Help Scientists Quantify Sea Ice Loss
APR 30, 2020
NASA's Laser Satellites Help Scientists Quantify Sea Ice Loss
Global climate change is melting Earth’s ice, and a recent study from NASA details how the polar ice sheets have c ...
JUL 10, 2020
Space & Astronomy
Astronomers Spot 4 Mysterious Circular Objects in Space
JUL 10, 2020
Astronomers Spot 4 Mysterious Circular Objects in Space
Scientists have spotted a new kind of signal in space- four strange, circular objects. Three are particularly bright aro ...
JUL 26, 2020
Space & Astronomy
Active Volcanoes Discovered on Venus
JUL 26, 2020
Active Volcanoes Discovered on Venus
New research has identified 37 volcanic structures on Venus that are thought to have been active recently.
AUG 02, 2020
Space & Astronomy
In a Rare Event, Massive Star Disappears Without a Supernova
AUG 02, 2020
In a Rare Event, Massive Star Disappears Without a Supernova
Astronomers were studying a massive star in the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy from 2001 to 2011. When they went back in 2019 to lo ...
Loading Comments...