Pluto Fact Sheet

The following Pluto fact sheet is based on NASA’s excellent planetary fact sheets. Pluto is no longer a planet, but a dwarf planet.

Mass: 0.0125 x 1024 kg
Volume: 0.715 x 1010 km3
Average radius: 1,195 km
Average diameter: 2,390 km
Mean density: 1.750 g/cm3
Escape velocity: 1.2 km/s
Surface gravity: 0.58 m/s2
Natural satellites: 3
Rings? – No
Semimajor axis: 5,906,380,000 km
Orbit period: 90,465 days
Perihelion: 4,436,820,000 km
Aphelion: 7,375,930,000 km
Mean orbital velocity: 4.72 km/s
Orbit inclination: 17.16°
Orbit eccentricity: 0.2488
Sidereal rotation period: 153.2928 hours
Length of day: 153.2820 hours
Axial tilt: 122.53°
Discovery: 18 February 1930
Minimum distance from Earth: 4,284,700,000 km
Maximum distance from Earth: 7,528,000,000 km
Maximum apparent diameter from Earth: 0.11 arc seconds
Minimum apparent diameter from Earth: 0.06 arc seconds
Maximum visual magnitude: 13.65

We’ve written many articles about Pluto for Universe Today. Here’s an article about why Pluto isn’t a planet any more, and here’s an article about the distance to Pluto.

If you’d like more info on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast just about Pluto. Listen here, Episode 64: Pluto.

When Was Pluto Discovered?

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Five of the planets are visible with the unaided eye and have been known about for thousands of years. Uranus was discovered in 1781, and Neptune was found in 1846. but when was Pluto discovered?

Pluto was discovered February 18th, 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Now that Uranus and Neptune had been discovered, astronomers were certain that there were more planets in the outer Solar System. The director of the Lowell Observatory, Vesto Melvin Slipher, handed the job of finding this next planet, dubbed “Planet X” to the 23-year old Tombaugh.

Tombaugh used a tool called a “blink comparator” to compare two photographs of the night sky. He worked methodically, comparing two photographic plates, looking for any object that jumped from one night to another night. And finally on February 18th, 1930, Tombaugh discovered Pluto; a faint object in the right orbit.

The name for Pluto was chosen by an 11-year old British school girl named Venetia Burney. This continued the tradition of naming planets after Roman gods. Pluto was the Roman god of the underworld, the same as Hades in Greek mythology. It also matched the first initials of Percival Lowell, who the observatory was named after. Lowell died in 1916, and so he never saw the discovery of Pluto.

We have written many articles about the discovery of planets in the Solar System for Universe Today. Here’s an article about when Uranus was discovered, and here’s an article about when Neptune was discovered.

If you’d like more info on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve also recorded a couple of episodes of Astronomy Cast about Pluto. Here’s a good one, Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.

Who Discovered Pluto?

Pluto is incredibly faint. You need a powerful backyard telescope to even see it as a dot, so it’s not surprising that Pluto wasn’t discovered until the modern age. Who discovered Pluto? That was the astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who found Pluto on February 18, 1930.

Tombaugh worked as an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was given the task of finding a trans-Neptunian object which was predicted by Percival Lowell and William Pickering – the search for Planet X. Tombaugh used a tool called a blink comparator to study two images of the same region of the sky taken several nights apart. He would display one image and then blink to the second image to see if any objects had moved from night to night.

And so on February 18, 1930, Tombaugh turned up just such an object moving at the right speed to be the unknown Planet X. The name “Pluto” was suggested by Venetia Burney, and 11-year old English school girl. Pluto was the name of the Roman god of the underworld, and Percival Lowell liked it because the first two letters started with PL, after his own initials.

Pluto was considered the 9th planet in the Solar System until 2006, when the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet, joining Eris and Ceres as the Solar System’s 3 dwarf planets. There are now only 8 planets in the Solar System.

We have written many articles about the discovery of planets in the Solar System. Here’s an article about who discovered Uranus, and here’s an article about who discovered Neptune.

If you’d like more info on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about Pluto. Start here, Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.

How Far Away is Pluto From the Sun?

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How far away is Pluto from the Sun? Pluto’s average distance from the Sun is 5.9 billion km or 3.7 billion miles.

But Pluto actually follows an elliptical orbit around the Sun. Sometimes it’s much closer to the Sun, and other times it’s further away. At its closest point, Pluto measures only 4.4 billion km from the Sun. This is close enough that a thin layer of frost evaporates from its surface, becoming a thin atmosphere around the planet. And then as it continues its journey around the Sun, Pluto gets colder again and this atmosphere refreezes onto the planet. It continues to travel out to a distance of 7.4 billion km from the Sun.

Astronomers use another method of measuring distances in the Solar System called the astronomical unit. 1 astronomical unit or AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun; approximately 150 million km. So we can use this to describe Pluto’s distance from the Sun. At its closest point, Pluto measures 29.7 AU. And then at its furthest point, Pluto is 49.3 AU.

We have written many articles about Pluto for Universe Today. Here’s an article about why Pluto isn’t a planet any more, and here are some pictures of Pluto.

If you’d like more info on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about Pluto. Listen here, Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.

Pluto’s Distance from the Sun

Pluto’s distance from the Sun is 5.9 billion km – the exact number is 5,906,376,272 km. Need that figure in miles? Pluto’s distance from the Sun is 3.67 billion miles.

Keep in mind that this distance is an average. Pluto follows a highly elliptical orbit around the Sun. At the closest point of its orbit, called perihelion, Pluto gets to within 4.44 billion km from the Sun. And then at its most distant point of its orbit, called aphelion, Pluto gets to within 7.38 billion km of the Sun.

Astronomers use another term to measure distance in the Solar System called “astronomical units”. 1 astronomical unit, or AU, is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun – about 150 million km. Pluto’s perihelion is 29.7 AU, and its aphelion is 49.3 AU. Pluto’s average distance, or semi-major axis, is 39.5 AU.

We have written many articles about Pluto for Universe Today. Here’s an article about why Pluto isn’t a planet any more, and here’s an article about methane in Pluto’s atmosphere.

Want more info on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about Pluto. Here’s one, Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.

How Long Does it Take Pluto to Orbit the Sun?

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Because Pluto orbits much further from the Sun than Earth, it takes much longer to orbit the Sun. In fact, Pluto takes 248 years to orbit the Sun. That’s because Pluto orbits at an average distance of 5.9 billion km from the Sun, while Earth only orbits at 150 million km. In fact, it takes so long for Pluto to orbit that Sun, that the dwarf planet hasn’t even completed a third of an orbit from when it was discovered back in February 18th, 1930.

Pluto has a highly elliptical orbit. Its distance from the Sun varies from 4.4 billion km to 7.4 billion km. And during this orbital period, Pluto goes through a few interesting changes. You might be surprised to learn that Pluto has an atmosphere. When it’s at its closest point to the Sun, Pluto’s atmosphere evaporates from the surface and surrounding the dwarf planet. And then when it gets further away, the atmosphere freezes again, coating the surface in a thin layer.

Pluto was only discovered in 1930 by Clyde W. Tombaugh. Because it takes 248 years to orbit the Sun, Pluto won’t have completed a full orbit until the year 2178.

We have written many articles about Pluto for Universe Today. Here’s an article about why Pluto isn’t a planet any more, and here’s an article about methane discovered in Pluto’s atmosphere.

If you’d like more information on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast just about Pluto. Listen here, Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.

How Big is Pluto?

Pluto used to be the smallest planet in the Solar System, but now it isn’t a planet any more, thanks to a recent decision from the International Astronomical Union. But now it’s one of the largest dwarf planets, so that’s a good thing. How big is Pluto?

The diameter of Pluto is only 2,390 km across. Just for comparison, that’s about 70% the diameter of the Moon. And it’s a fraction of the size of the Earth; about 18% of the Earth’s diameter.

In terms of volume, Pluto only has 6.39 x 109 km3. That sounds like a huge number, but it’s only 0.59% of the volume of the Earth. In other words, you could put almost 170 objects the size of Pluto inside the Earth.

The mass of Pluto is 1.3 x 1022 kg, which is only 0.2% the mass of the Earth, or 18% the mass of the Moon. Needless to say, Pluto doesn’t have very much mass at all.

The surface area of Pluto is 1.67 x 107 square kilometers. That’s only 3.3% the surface area of Earth, and about the same surface area as Russia.

If you could stand on the surface of Pluto, you would experience only 6.7% the gravity you enjoy on Earth.

We have written many article about Pluto for Universe Today. Here’s an article that explains why Pluto isn’t a planet any more, and here are some interesting facts about Pluto.

Want more information on Pluto? Here’s Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast about Pluto and the rest of the icy outer Solar System. You can find it here.

Mythology of the Planets

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Thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations turned to the heavens, marveling at their wonders. These ancient people worshipped various gods and often linked their gods with planets in the sky, which they considered to be “wandering stars.”

Mercury gets its name from the winged messenger of the gods. He was also the god of thievery, commerce, and travel. Most likely, the planet got its name from the rate at which it spins.

Venus was the Roman goddess of love and beauty, so it is a fitting name for this brightly shining planet. The only objects in our Solar System brighter than Venus are the Sun and the Moon. Ancient civilizations thought that Venus was two different objects – the Morning Star and the Evening Star. Other civilizations have also associated the planet with love. The Babylonians called the planet Ishtar after their goddess of womanhood and love.

Earth is the only planet not named after a Roman god or goddess, but it is associated with the goddess Terra Mater (Gaea to the Greeks). In mythology, she was the first goddess on Earth and the mother of Uranus. The name Earth comes from Old English and Germanic. It is derived from “eor(th)e” and “ertha,” which mean “ground.” Other civilizations all over the world also developed terms for our planet.

Mars is named after the Roman god of war. The planet got its name from the fact that it is the color of blood.  Other civilizations also named the planets for its red color.

Jupiter was the Roman king of the gods. Considering that Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System, it makes sense that the planet was named after the most important god.

Saturn was named after the Roman god of agriculture and harvest. While the planet may have gotten its name from its golden color, like a field of wheat, it also had to do with its position in the sky. According to mythology, the god Saturn stole the position of king of the gods from his father Uranus. The throne was then stolen by Jupiter.

Uranus was not discovered until the 1800’s, but the astronomers in that time period continued the tradition of naming planets after Roman gods. In mythology, Uranus was the father of Saturn and was at one time the king of the gods.

While Neptune almost ended up being named after one of the astronomers credited with discovering it – Verrier – that was greatly disputed, so it was named after the god of the sea. The name was probably inspired by its blue color.

Pluto is no longer a planet, but it used to be. The dark, cold, former planet was named after the god of the underworld. The first two letters of Pluto are also the initials of the man who predicted  its existence, Percival Lowell.

Universe Today has articles on names of the planets and all the planets.

For more information on the planets check out all about the planets and mythology of the planets.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all the planets including Saturn.

Pluto’s Moons, Nix and Hydra, may have been Adopted

 

How many moons does Pluto have? The mini-moons of Pluto, Nix and Hydra, were discovered in 2005 (but named in 2006) during an observation campaign by the Hubble Space Telescope. The discovery of these mini-moons increase the number of natural satellites orbiting Pluto to three (including larger moon Charon). But where did these satellites come from? The current accepted theory on the formation on the large moon, Charon, is much like the theory supporting the creation of Earth’s Moon. It is thought that a large impact between two Large Kuiper Belt Objects chipped Charon away from a proto-Pluto, putting the chunk of Pluto mass into orbit. Over the years, tidal forces slowed the pair and Charon was allowed to settle into its present-day orbit. Recent theory suggests that Nix and Hydra are a by product of this collision, merely shattered fragments of the huge impact. But there are problems with this idea. Could Nix and Hydra have come from somewhere other than the Pluto-Charon impact?

The orbits of Plutos moons, Charon, Nix and Hydra (credit: NASA)
The small moons that orbit the Large Kuiper Belt Object (formerly classified as a planet) can be found about 48,700 kilometers and 64,800 kilometers from the surface of Pluto. The closest moon is called Nix and the farthest, Hydra. Nix has an orbital resonance of 4:1 with Charons orbit and the larger moon Hydra has a resonance of 6:1 (i.e. Nix will orbit Pluto once for every four of Charons orbits; Hydra will orbit Pluto once for every six of Charons orbits).

The reasons behind these mini-moon orbits are only just beginning to be understood, but it is known that their resonances with Charons orbit is rooted way back during the Pluto-system evolution. If we assume Hydra and Nix were formed from a massive Kuiper Belt Object collision, the easiest explanation is to assume they are whole fragments from the impact caught in the gravity of the Pluto-Charon system. However, due to the highly eccentric orbits that would have resulted from this collision, it is not possible that the two little moons could have evolved into a near-circular orbit, in near-corotational resonance with Charon.

So, could it be possible that the moons may have formed from the dust and debris resulting from the initial collision? If there was enough material produced, and if the material collided frequently, then perhaps Nix and Hydra were born from a cold disk of debris (rather than being whole pieces of rock), eventually coalescing and forming sizeable rocky moons. As there may have been a disk of debris, collisions with the orbiting Nix and Hydra would have also reduced any eccentricity in their orbits.

But there is a big problem with this theory. From impact simulations, the post-impact disk of debris surrounding Pluto would have been very compact. The disk could not have reached as far as the present-day orbits of the moons.

One more theory suggests that perhaps the moons were created in a post-impact disk, but very close to Pluto, and then through gravitational interactions with Charon, the orbits of Nix and Hydra were pulled outward, allowing them to orbit far from the Pluto-Charon post-impact disk. According to recent computer simulations, this doesn’t seem to be possible either.

To find an answer, work by Yoram Lithwick and Yanqin Wu (University of Toronto) suggest we must look beyond the Pluto-Charon system for a source of material for Nix and Hydra. From simulations, the above theories on the creation of the small moons being started by material ejected from a large collision between two Large Kuiper Belt Objects (creating Pluto and Charon) are extremely problematic. They do not correctly answer how the highly eccentric orbits Nix and Hydra would have from a collision could evolve into the near-circular ones they have today.

Lithwick and Wu go on to say that the circular, corotational resonant orbits of the two moons could be created from a Plutocentric disk of small bits of rock scooped up during Pluto’s orbit around the Sun. Therefore Nix and Hydra may have been formed from the rocky debris left over from the development of the Solar System, and not from a collision event creating Charon. This may hold true for the countless other Kuiper Belt Objects in orbit in the far reaches of the Solar System, no impact is necessary for the creation of the tiny moons now thought to be their satellites.

It is hoped that the New Horizons mission (launched January 21st, 2006) to the far reaches of the Solar System will reveal some of the questions that remain unanswered in the depths of our mysterious Kuiper Belt. Hopefully we will also find out whether Nix and Hydra are children of Pluto and Charon… or whether they were adopted.

Source: arXiv

New Horizons Prepares to Zoom to Pluto

Artist impression of the New Horizons spacecraft sweeping past Pluto. Image credit: JHUAPL/SwRI. Click to enlarge.

If all goes well, the first mission to the farthest known planet in our Solar System will launch in early 2006, and give us our first detailed views of Pluto, its moon Charon, and the Kuiper Belt Region, while completing NASA’s reconnaissance of all the planets in our Solar System.

“We’re going to a planet that we’ve never been to before,” said Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto. “This is like something out of a NASA storybook, like in the 60’s and 70’s with all the new missions that were happening then. But this is exploration for a new century; it’s something bold and different. Being the first mission to the last planet really ‘revs’ me. There’s something special about going to a new frontier, about

Pluto is so far away (5 billion km or 3.1 billion miles when New Horizons reaches it) that no telescope, not even the Hubble Space Telescope, has been able to provide a good image of the planet, and so Pluto is a real mystery world. The existence of Pluto has only been known for 75 years, and the debate continues about its classification as a planet, although most planetary scientists classify it in the new class of planets called Ice Dwarfs. Pluto is a large, ice-rock world, born in the Kuiper Belt area of our solar system. Its moon, Charon, is large enough that some astronomers refer to the two as a binary planet. Pluto undergoes seasonal change and has an elongated and enormous 248-year orbit which causes the planet’s atmosphere to cyclically dissipate and freeze out, but later be replenished when the planet returns closer to the sun.

New Horizons will provide the first close-up look at Pluto and the surrounding region. The grand piano-sized spacecraft will map and analyze the surface of Pluto and Charon, study Pluto’s escaping atmosphere, look for an atmosphere around Charon, and perform similar explorations of one or more Kuiper Belt Objects.

The spacecraft, built at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, is currently being flight tested at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Dr. Stern has been planning a mission to Pluto for quite some time, surviving through the various on-again, off-again potential missions to the outer solar system.

“I’m feeling very good about the mission,” he said in an interview from his office at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “I’ve been working on this project for about 15 years, and the first 10 years we couldn’t even get it out of the starting blocks. Now we’ve not only managed to get it funded, but we have built it and we are really looking forward to flying the mission soon if all continues to go well.”

Of the hurdles remaining to be cleared before launch, one looms rather large. New Horizons’ systems are powered by a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), where heat released from the decay of radioactive materials is converted into energy. This type of power system is essential for a mission going far from the Sun like New Horizons where solar power is not an option, but it has to be approved by both NASA and the White House. The 45-day public comment period ended in April 2005, so the project now awaits final, official approval. Meanwhile, the New Horizons mission teams prepare for launch.

“We still have a lot of work in front of us,” Stern said. “All this summer we’re testing and checking out the spacecraft and the components, getting all the bugs out, and making sure its launch ready, and flight ready. That will take us through September and in October we hope to bring the spacecraft to the Cape.”

The month-long launch window for New Horizons opens on January 11, 2006.

New Horizons will be the fastest spacecraft ever launched. The launch vehicle combines an Atlas V first stage, a Centaur second stage, and a STAR 48B solid rocket third stage.

“We built the smallest spacecraft we could get away with that has all the things it needs: power, communication, computers, science equipment and redundancy of all systems, and put it on the biggest possible launch vehicle,” said Stern. “That combination is ferocious in terms of the speed we reach in deep space.”

At best speed, the spacecraft will be traveling at 50 km/second (36 miles/second), or the equivalent of Mach 85.

Stern compared the Atlas rocket to other launch vehicles. “The Saturn V took the Apollo astronauts to the moon in 3 days,” he said. “Our rocket will take New Horizons past the moon in 9 hours. It took Cassini 3 years to get to Jupiter, but New Horizons will pass Jupiter in just 13 months.”

Still, it will take 9 years and 5 months to cross our huge Solar System. A gravity assist from Jupiter is essential in maintaining the 2015 arrival date. Not being able to get off the ground early in the launch window would have big consequences later on.

“We launch in January of 2006 and arrive at Pluto in July of 2015, best case scenario,” said Stern. “If we don’t launch early in the launch window, the arrival date slips because Jupiter won’t be in as good a position to give us a good gravity assist.”

New Horizons has 18 days to launch in January 2006 to attain a 2015 arrival. After that, Jupiter’s position moves so that for every 4 or 5 days delay in launch means arriving at Pluto year later. By February 14 the window closes for a 2020 arrival. New Horizons can try to launch again in early 2007, but then the best case arrival year is 2019.

New Horizons will be carrying seven science instruments:

  • Ralph: The main imager with both visible and infrared capabilities that will provide color, composition and thermal maps of Pluto, Charon, and Kuiper Belt Objects.
  • Alice: An ultraviolet spectrometer capable of analyzing Pluto’s atmospheric structure and composition.
  • REX: The Radio Science Experiment that measures atmospheric composition and surface temperature with a passive radiometer. REX also measures the masses of objects New Horizons flies by.
  • LORRI: The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager has a telescopic camera that will map Pluto?s far side and provide geologic data.
  • PEPSSI: The Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation that will measure the composition and density of the ions escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.
  • SWAP: Solar Wind Around Pluto, which will measure the escape rate of Pluto?s atmosphere and determine how the solar wind affects Pluto.
  • SDC: The Student Dust Counter will measure the amount of space dust the spacecraft encounters on the voyage. This instrument was designed and will be operated by students at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Stern says the first part of the flight will keep the mission teams busy, as they need to check out the entire spacecraft, and execute the Jupiter fly-by at 13 months.

“The middle years will be long and probably — and hopefully — pretty boring,” he said, but will include yearly spacecraft and instrument checkouts, trajectory corrections, instrument calibrations and rehearsals the main mission. During the last three years of the interplanetary cruise mission teams will be writing, testing and uploading the highly detailed command script for the Pluto/Charon encounter, and the mission begins in earnest approximately a year before the spacecraft arrives at Pluto, as it begins to photograph the region.

A mission to Pluto has been a long time coming, and is popular with a wide variety of people. Children seem to have an affinity for the planet with the cartoon character name, while the National Academy of Sciences ranked a mission to Pluto as the highest priority for this decade. In 2002, when it looked as though NASA would have to scrap a mission to Pluto for budgetary reasons, the Planetary Society, among others, lobbied strongly to Congress to keep the mission alive.

Stern said the mission’s website received over a million hits the first month it was active, and the hit rate hasn’t diminished. Stern writes a monthly column on the website, http://pluto.jhuapl.edu , where you can learn more details about the mission and sign-up to have your name sent to Pluto along with the spacecraft.

While Stern is understandably excited about this mission, he says that any chance to explore is a great opportunity.

“Exploration always opens our eyes,” he said. “No one expected to find river valleys on Mars, or a volcano on Io, or rivers on Titan. What do I think we’ll find at Pluto-Charon? I think we’ll find something wonderful, and we expect to be surprised.”