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NASA’s telescope SOFIA discovers reasons for Pluto’s haze

Date: 16 May 2020 Tags: Space

Issue

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has observed that Pluto’s haze is formed from the faint light of the Sun 3.7 billion miles away as it moves through an unusual orbit.

 

Background

Pluto is a mysterious object that is constantly surprising scientists. 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. 

 

Details

  • Remote observations of Pluto by SOFIA, which is NASA’s telescope on an airplane show that the thin haze enshrouding Pluto is made of very small particles that remain in the atmosphere for prolonged periods of time rather than immediately falling to the surface. 

  • SOFIA's data clarify that these haze particles are actively being replenished, a discovery that is revising predictions on the fate of Pluto's atmosphere as it moves into even colder areas of space.

  • SOFIA observed the middle layers of Pluto’s atmosphere in the infrared and visible light wavelengths, and soon after, the New Horizons spacecraft probed its upper and lower layers using radio waves and ultraviolet light. These combined observations, taken so close in time, have provided the most complete picture yet of Pluto’s atmosphere.

  • The agreement between the data gathered remotely by SOFIA and from New Horizons’ close flyby supports that occultation observations from Earth can provide high-quality data between spacecraft missions.

  • Pluto's atmosphere is predominantly nitrogen gas, along with small amounts of methane and carbon monoxide. Haze particles form high up in the atmosphere, more than 20 miles above the surface, as methane and other gases react to sunlight, before slowly raining down to the icy surface.

  • Pluto circles the Sun in a long, oval shape, called an elliptical orbit, and at an angle, called an inclined orbit. It also rotates on its side. This causes some areas of the dwarf planet to be exposed to more sunlight at different points in the orbit.