More Surprises From Pluto


Ah, Pluto. Seems every time we think we’ve got it figured out, it has a new surprise to throw at us.

First spotted in 1930 by a young Clyde Tombaugh, for 76 years it enjoyed a comfortable position as the solar system’s most distant planet. Then a controversial decision in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union, spurred by suggestions from astronomer (and self-confessed “planet-killer”) Mike Brown*, relegated Pluto to a new class of worlds called “dwarf planets”. Not quite planets and not quite asteroids, dwarf planets cannot entirely clear their orbital path with their own gravitational force and thus miss out on full planetary status. Besides immediately making a lot of science textbooks obsolete and rendering the handy mnemonic “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies” irrelevant (or at least confusing), the decision angered many people around the world, both in and out of the scientific community. Pluto is a planet, they said, it always has been and always will be! Save Pluto! the schoolkids wrote in crayon to planetarium directors. The world all of a sudden realized how much people liked having Pluto as the “last” planet, and didn’t want to see it demoted by decision, especially a highly contested one.

Yet as it turns out, Pluto really may not be a planet after all.

It may be a comet.

But…that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First things first.

Discovery data showing carbon monoxide spectrum. Credit: J.S. Greaves / Joint Astronomy Centre.

Recent discoveries by a UK team of astronomers points to the presence of carbon monoxide in Pluto’s atmosphere. Yes, Pluto has an atmosphere; astronomers have known about it since 1988. At first assumed to be about 100km thick, it was later estimated to extend out about 1500km and be composed of methane gas and nitrogen. This gas would expand from the planet’s – er, dwarf planet’s – surface as it came closer to the Sun during the course of its eccentric 248-year orbit and then freeze back onto the surface as it moved further away. The new findings from the University of St Andrews team, made by observations with the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii, identify an even thicker atmosphere containing carbon monoxide that extends over 3000 km, reaching nearly halfway to Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

It’s possible that this carbon monoxide atmosphere may have expanded outwards from Pluto, especially in the years since 1989 when it made the closest approach to the Sun in its orbit. Surface heating (and the term “heating” is used scientifically here…remember, at around -240ºC (-400ºF) Pluto would seem anything but balmy to us!) by the Sun’s radiation would have warmed the surface and expelled these gases outwards. This also coincides with observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope over the course of four years, which revealed varying patterns of dark and light areas on Pluto’s surface – possibly caused by the thawing of frozen areas that shift and reveal lighter surface material below.

“Seeing such an example of extra-terrestrial climate-change is fascinating. This cold simple atmosphere that is strongly driven by the heat from the Sun could give us important clues to how some of the basic physics works, and act as a contrasting test-bed to help us better understand the Earth’s atmosphere.”

–  Dr. Jane Greaves, Team Leader

In fact, carbon monoxide may be the key to why Pluto even still has an atmosphere. Unlike methane, which is a greenhouse gas, carbon monoxide acts as a coolant; it may be keeping Pluto’s fragile atmosphere from heating up too much and escaping into space entirely! Over the decades and centuries that it takes for Pluto to complete a single year, the balance between these two gases must be extremely precise.

Read more about this discovery on the Royal Astronomical Society’s site.

Pluto's elliptical orbit

So here we have Pluto exhibiting an expanding atmosphere of thawing expelled gas as it gets closer to the Sun in an elliptical, eccentric orbit. (Sound familiar?) And now there’s another unusual, un-planet-like feature that’s being put on the table: Pluto may have a tail.

Actually this is an elaboration of the research results coming from the same team at the University of St Andrews. The additional element here is a tiny redshift detected in the carbon monoxide signature, indicating that it is moving away from us in an unusual way. It’s possible that this could be caused by the top layers of Pluto’s atmosphere – where the carbon monoxide resides – being blown back by the solar wind into, literally, a tail.

That sounds an awful lot, to this particular astronomy reporter anyway, like a comet.

Just saying.

Anyway, regardless of what Pluto is or isn’t, will be called or used to be called, there’s no denying that it is a fascinating little world that deserves our attention. (And it will be getting plenty of that come July 2015 when the New Horizons spacecraft swings by for a visit!) I’m sure there’s no one here who would argue that fact.

New Horizons’ upcoming visit will surely answer many questions about Pluto – whatever it is – and most likely raise even more.


Artist's impression of Pluto's huge atmosphere of carbon monoxide.Credit:P.A.S. Cruickshank.

The new discovery was presented by team leader Dr. Jane Greaves on Wednesday, April 20 at the National Astronomy Meeting in Wales.

Article reference: Discovery Of Carbon Monoxide In The Upper Atmosphere Of Pluto


*No disrespect to Mr. Brown intended…he was just performing science as he saw fit!



Red Suns and Black Trees: Shedding a New Light on Alien Plants



The grass may definitely not be greener on some alien worlds, suggests a new study from the UK. For example, planets in double-star systems could have grey or black vegetation.

Researcher Jack O’Malley-James of the University of St Andrews in Scotland worked out how photosynthesis in plants is affected by the color of the light they receive. On Earth, most plants have evolved to be green in order to take advantage of the yellowish color of the sunlight that’s received on the surface of our planet. (Our Sun, classified as a “Population I yellow dwarf star”, would look bright white from space but our atmosphere makes it appear yellow.) There are lots of other stars like our Sun in the Universe, and many of them are in multiple systems sharing orbits with other types of stars…red dwarfs, blue stars, red giants, white dwarfs…stars come in many different colors depending on their composition, age, size and temperature. We may be used to yellow but nature really has no preference! (Although red dwarfs happen to be the garden variety star in our own galaxy.)

Terrestrial examples of dark-colored plants

Planets that orbit within these multiple systems and exist within the habitable “Goldilocks” zone (and we are finding more and more candidates every day!) could evolve plants that depend on suns with different colors than ours. Green does a good job powering photosynthesis here, but on a planet orbiting a red dwarf and Sun-like star plants could very well be grey or black to absorb more light energy, according to O’Malley-James.

“Our simulations suggest that planets in multi-star systems may host exotic forms of the more familiar plants we see on Earth. Plants with dim red dwarf suns for example, may appear black to our eyes, absorbing across the entire visible wavelength range in order to use as much of the available light as possible.”

– Jack O’Malley-James, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of St Andrews

The study takes into consideration many different combinations of star varieties and how any potential life-sustaining planets could orbit them.

In some instances different portions of a planet may be illuminated by a differently-colored star in a pair…what sorts of variations in plant (and subsequently, animal) evolution could arise then?

And it’s not just the colors of plants that could evolve differently. “For planets orbiting two stars like our own, harmful radiation from intense stellar  flares could lead to plants that develop their own UV-blocking sunscreens, or photosynthesizing microorganisms that can move in response to a sudden flare,” said O’Malley-James.

Kermit may have been right all along…being green might really not be easy!

Read more on the Royal Astronomical Society’s news release or on the University of St Andrews website.

Top image credit: Jason Major