Astronomers stunned by Pluto: Nitrogen glaciers and hazy air found on its surface

Astronomers stunned by Pluto: Nitrogen glaciers and hazy air found on its surface

The data pouring from the New Horizons spacecraft just continues to shock scientists about just how active the dwarf planet's geology and atmosphere are.

New data from the New Horizons spacecraft that just recently passed close by Pluto has found nitrogen glaciers flowing down from its iconic “heart” shaped feature, and the dwarf planet has a hazy atmosphere as well.

These findings have floored scientists, who expected the former planet to be essentially nothing more than a dead rock in the outer reaches of our solar system, but New Horizons is proving everyone wrong, according to a Scientific American report.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will continue to beam new data in the coming months, so expect more revelations to be forthcoming. A bunch of new images were released along with the findings at a press conference on Friday, 10 days after the spacecraft’s close flyby.

Scientists used a radio-science instrument on the probe to measure the surface pressure of Pluto. They found that, surprisingly, the mass of Pluto’s atmosphere has decreased by a factor of two in the last couple of years, a finding that is “pretty astonishing,” said Michael Summers, one of the members of the team, according to the report.

Before New Horizons arrived, scientists had surmised that Pluto, which is getting farther and farther from the sun, would see its nitrogen atmosphere freeze and condense on the surface as Pluto got farther out.

In another interesting discovery, a layer of haze in Pluto’s thin atmosphere extends 160 kilometers above the surface, about five times higher than had been expected. The ice appears to be made up of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide, which is what makes up the “heart” pattern on the dwarf planet that scientists call Tombaugh Regio.



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