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Pluto

Northern hemisphere of Pluto in true color
Northern hemisphere of Pluto in true color NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker

Pluto (minor planet designation: 134340 Pluto) is an icy dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt, a ring of bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. It was the first and the largest Kuiper belt object to be discovered.

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and declared to be the ninth planet from the Sun. After 1992, its status as a planet was questioned following the discovery of several objects of similar size in the Kuiper belt. In 2005, Eris, a dwarf planet in the scattered disc which is 27% more massive than Pluto, was discovered. This led the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to define the term “planet” formally in 2006, during their 26th General Assembly. That definition excluded Pluto and reclassified it as a dwarf planet.

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It is the ninth-largest and tenth-most-massive known object directly orbiting the Sun. It is the largest known trans-Neptunian object by volume but is less massive than Eris. Like other Kuiper belt objects, Pluto is primarily made of ice and rock and is relatively small—one-sixth the mass of the Moon and one-third its volume. It has a moderately eccentric and inclined orbit during which it ranges from 30 to 49 astronomical units or AU (4.4–7.4 billion km) from the Sun. This means that Pluto periodically comes closer to the Sun than Neptune, but a stable orbital resonance with Neptune prevents them from colliding. Light from the Sun takes 5.5 hours to reach Pluto at its average distance (39.5 AU).

Pluto has five known moons: Charon (the largest, with a diameter just over half that of Pluto), Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Pluto and Charon are sometimes considered a binary system because the barycenter of their orbits does not lie within either body.

The New Horizons spacecraft performed a flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015, becoming the first ever, and to date only, spacecraft to do so. During its brief flyby, New Horizons made detailed measurements and observations of Pluto and its moons. In September 2016, astronomers announced that the reddish-brown cap of the north pole of Charon is composed of tholins, organic macromolecules that may be ingredients for the emergence of life, and produced from methane, nitrogen and other gases released from the atmosphere of Pluto and transferred 19,000 km (12,000 mi) to the orbiting moon.

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Discovery

In the 1840s, Urbain Le Verrier used Newtonian mechanics to predict the position of the then-undiscovered planet Neptune after analyzing perturbations in the orbit of Uranus.[14] Subsequent observations of Neptune in the late 19th century led astronomers to speculate that Uranus’s orbit was being disturbed by another planet besides Neptune.

In 1906, Percival Lowell—a wealthy Bostonian who had founded Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1894—started an extensive project in search of a possible ninth planet, which he termed “Planet X”.[15] By 1909, Lowell and William H. Pickering had suggested several possible celestial coordinates for such a planet.[16] Lowell and his observatory conducted his search until his death in 1916, but to no avail. Unknown to Lowell, his surveys had captured two faint images of Pluto on March 19 and April 7, 1915, but they were not recognized for what they were.[16][17] There are fourteen other known precovery observations, with the earliest made by the Yerkes Observatory on August 20, 1909.[18]

Percival’s widow, Constance Lowell, entered into a ten-year legal battle with the Lowell Observatory over her husband’s legacy, and the search for Planet X did not resume until 1929.[19] Vesto Melvin Slipher, the observatory director, gave the job of locating Planet X to 23-year-old Clyde Tombaugh, who had just arrived at the observatory after Slipher had been impressed by a sample of his astronomical drawings.[19]

Tombaugh’s task was to systematically image the night sky in pairs of photographs, then examine each pair and determine whether any objects had shifted position. Using a blink comparator, he rapidly shifted back and forth between views of each of the plates to create the illusion of movement of any objects that had changed position or appearance between photographs. On February 18, 1930, after nearly a year of searching, Tombaugh discovered a possible moving object on photographic plates taken on January 23 and 29. A lesser-quality photograph taken on January 21 helped confirm the movement.[20] After the observatory obtained further confirmatory photographs, news of the discovery was telegraphed to the Harvard College Observatory on March 13, 1930.[16] Pluto has yet to complete a full orbit of the Sun since its discovery, as one Plutonian year is 247.68 years long.[21]

CORRECTION: Pluto is no longer a planet as the strict definition concerns. Maybe we are tempted to categorize it as so because was a beloved part of the solar system, with a mascot at Disney’s world. link

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