Pluto and Other Kuiper Belt Objects Started Out With Water Oceans, and Have Been Slowly Freezing Solid for Billions of Years

It seems unlikely that an ocean could persist on a world that never gets closer than 30 astronomical units from the Sun. But that’s the case with Pluto. Evidence shows that it has a sub-surface ocean between 100 to 180 km thick, at the boundary between the core and the mantle. Other Kuiper Belt Objects may be similar.

But time might be running out for these buried oceans, which will one day turn to ice.

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There Are Winds Blowing On Pluto, Driven by Frozen Nitrogen

Earth and Pluto don’t have much in common. Earth is a vibrant, living world, whereas Pluto is cold, distant and lifeless. But one thing they do have in common is nitrogen. Earth’s atmosphere is about 78% nitrogen, and Pluto’s primary atmospheric constituent is also nitrogen, although the exact percentage is unclear.

On Pluto, where the surface temperature is about 42 Kelvin (-231 Celsius) most of that nitrogen is frozen. A new study says that Pluto’s frozen nitrogen drives the planet’s winds, and shapes its feature surfaces.

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NASA is Now Considering a Pluto Orbiter Mission

NASA’s New Horizons mission taught us a lot about Pluto, the ice dwarf planet. But the spacecraft sped past Pluto so quickly, we only got high-resolution images of one side of the planet, the so-called “encounter side.” New Horizons gave us a big leap in understanding, but in a way, it asked more questions than it answered.

The next step is clearly an orbiter, and now NASA is starting to seriously consider one.

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A Bunch of New Names for Pluto’s Surface Features Were Just Approved

Pluto is getting some new names. In the past, prior to the New Horizons mission, there wasn’t much to name. But now that that spacecraft has flew past Pluto and observed it up close, there’s some features that need naming.

Now the IAU (International Astronomical Union) has approved a new set of names for 14 of the dwarf planet’s surface features.

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An Insulating Layer of Gas Could Keep a Liquid Ocean Inside Pluto

In July of 2015, NASA’s New Horizons mission made history by becoming the first spacecraft to ever conduct a flyby with Pluto. In addition to providing the world with the first up-close images of this distant world, New Horizons‘ suite of scientific instruments also provided scientists with a wealth of information about Pluto – including its surface features, composition, and atmosphere.

The images the spacecraft took of the surface also revealed unexpected features like the basin named Sputnik Planitia – which scientists saw as an indication of a subsurface ocean. In a new study led by researchers from the University of Hokkaido, the presence of a thin layer of clathrate hydrates at the base of Pluto’s ice shell would ensure that this world could support an ocean.

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Pluto and Charon Don’t Have Enough Small Craters

In 2015, the New Horizons mission became the first robotic spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. In so doing, the probe managed to capture stunning photos and valuable data on what was once considered to be the ninth planet of the Solar System (and to some, still is) and its moons. Years later, scientists are still poring over the data to see what else they can learn about the Pluto-Charon system.

For instance, the mission science team at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) recently made an interesting discovery about Pluto and Charon. Based on images acquired by the New Horizons spacecraft of some small craters on their surfaces, the team indirectly confirmed something about the Kuiper Belt could have serious implications for our models of Solar System formation.

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New Reasons why Pluto Should be Considered a Planet After All

In 2006, during their 26th General Assembly, the International Astronomic Union (IAU) passed a resolution to adopt a formal definition for the term “planet”. According to this definition, bodies that orbit the Sun, are spherical, do not orbit other bodies, and have cleared their orbits were designated planets. Pluto, and other such bodies that did not meet all of these requirements, would thereafter be designated as “dwarf planets”.

However, according to a new study led by Philip T. Metzger – a planetary scientists from the Florida Space Institute (at the University of Central Florida) – the IAU’s standard for classifying planets is not supported by the research literature on Pluto, and is therefore invalid. For those people who have maintained that “Pluto is still planet” for the past twelve years, this is certainly good news!

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Planetpalooza: All Bright Planets Visible in the July Dusk Sky

Moon and Venus

Moon and Venus
Venus and the waxing crescent Moon above the Grand Palais in Paris, France from May 17th. Image credit: Gwenael Blanck

Missed the planets in the dusk sky in early 2018? This summer’s astronomical blockbuster sees the return of all the classical naked eye planets in the dusk sky, in a big way.

The Sky Scene in July

This coming July 2018 features a rare look at the solar system in profile: you can see Mercury and Venus low in the dusk looking westward immediately after sunset, with Jupiter high to the south, Saturn rising in the east, and Mars rising just behind. This isn’t a true grouping or grand conjunction, as the planets span a 170 degree swath of the ecliptic from Mercury to Mars (too bad they’re not in orbital order!) but a product of our Earthly vantage point looking out over the swath of inner solar system in the evening sky.

Can you manage a “planetary marathon” and collect all five this coming Fourth of July weekend? Here’s a quick rundown of all the planetary action from west to east:

Mercury
An amazing view – Mercury through the telescope from May 5th. Image credit and copyright: Roger Hutchinson.

Mercury’s July apparition – fleeting Mercury is always the toughest of the planets to catch, low to the west. -0.3 magnitude Mercury actually forms a straight line with the bright +1st/2nd magnitude stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini the Twins later this week on the evening of June 27th. Mercury reaches greatest elongation 26 degrees east of the Sun on July 12th, presenting a half illuminated, 8” disk. The angle of the evening ecliptic is canted southward in July, meaning that the position of the planets in the evening sky also favors southern viewers. July also presents another interesting mercurial challenge, as Mercury passes in front of the Beehive Open cluster (Messier 44) in the heart of the constellation Cancer on the night of July 3rd/4th.

planets
The span of the planets through late-July at dusk. Credit: Stellarium.

Venus this summer – higher up at dusk, brilliant Venus rules the evening sky, shining at magnitude -4. Venus is so bright that you can easily pick it up this month before sunset… if you know exactly where to look for it. Venus reaches greatest elongation 46 degrees east of the Sun on August 17th, presenting a featureless half-illuminated disk 25” in diameter near a point known as dichotomy. Venus also flirts with the bright star Regulus (Alpha Leonis) in July, passing a degrees from the star on July 10th. Fun fact: Venus can actually occult (pass in front of) Regulus and last did so on July 7th, 1959 and will do so next on October 1st, 2044.

Jupiter
Jupiter, with the shadow of Europa in transit from June 6th. Image credit and copyright: Ralph Smyth.

Jupiter Rules – The King of the Planets, Jupiter rules the sky after darkness falls, crossing the astronomical constellation Libra the Scales. Fresh off of its May 9th opposition, Jupiter still shines at a respectable magnitude -2 in July, with a disk 36” across. Jupiter heads towards quadrature 90 degrees east of the Sun on August 6th, meaning the planet and its retinue of four Galilean moons cast their respective shadows off to one side. In fact, we also see a series of fine double shadow transits across the Jovian cloud tops involving Io and Europa starting on July 29th.

saturn
The glorious planet Saturn. Image credit and copyright: Paul Stewart

…and Saturn makes five: Stately Saturn never fails to impress. Also just past its June 27th opposition, the rings are still tipped open narrowing down only slightly from last year’s widest angle of 27 degrees, assuring an amazing view. Shining at magnitude 0 and subtending 42” (including rings) in July, Saturn traverses the star-rich fields of the astronomical constellation Sagittarius the Archer this summer. Look at Saturn, and you’re glimpsing the edge of the known solar system right up until William Herschel discovered Uranus on the night of March 13th, 1781.

The origins of a dust storm: Mars from late May. Image credit and copyright: Efrain Morales.

Enter Mars: We saved the best for last. The Red Planet races towards a fine opposition on July 27th. This is the best approach of Mars since the historic 2003 opposition, and very nearly as favorable: Mars shines at magnitude -2.8 at the end of July, and presents a 24.3” disk. More to come as Mars approaches!

And as with many an opposition, dust storm season has engulfed Mars. Be vigilant, as the ‘Red’ Planet often takes on a sickly yellowish tint during a large dust storm, and this cast will often be apparent even to the naked eye. NASA’s aging Opportunity rover has fallen silent due to the lack of sunlight and solar power, and it’s to be seen if the rover can ride out the storm.

The path of the Moon – The Moon makes a good guidepost as it visits the planets in July. The first eclipse season of 2018 also begins in July, with a partial solar eclipse for Tasmania, SE Australia and the extreme southernmost tip of New Zealand on July 13th and wrapping up with a fine total lunar eclipse favoring Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia on July 27th. Note that this eclipse is only 14 hours after Mars passes opposition… we expect to see plenty of pictures of a ruddy Mars near a Blood Moon eclipse.

The Moon also makes a handy guide to catch each of the planets in the daytime sky… though you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to nab Mercury or Saturn (also, be sure the Sun is physically blocked out of view while hunting for Mercury in the daytime sky!) Here are the respective passes of the Moon near each planet in July:

Planet Date Time Moon Phase/illumination Distance
Mercury July 14th 23UT/7PM EDT Waxing crescent/5% 2.1 degrees
Venus July 16th 4UT/00AM EDT Waxing crescent/14% 1.5 degrees
Jupiter July 21st 2UT/10PM EDT Waxing gibbous/63% 4.2 degrees
Saturn July 25th 5UT/1AM EDT Waxing gibbous/94% 2 degrees
Mars July 27th 16UT/12 EDT Full Moon/100% 8 degrees

Unfortunately, the telescopic planets Uranus and Neptune are left out of the July evening view; Uranus is currently crossing the constellation Aries and Neptune resides in Aquarius, respectively. Pluto is, however, currently in the direction of Sagittarius, and you can also wave to NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft en route to its New Year’s Day 2019 KBO destination Ultima Thule (nee 2014 MU69) near the waxing gibbous Moon on the night of July 26th.

The Moon, Pluto and New Horizons on the evening of July 26th. Credit: Starry Night

And finally, another solar system destination in Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer beckons telescope owners in July: asteroid 4 Vesta.

All of this is more than enough planetary action to keep planetary observers and imagers up late on forthcoming July evenings.