Friday, 18 March 2016

Pluto’s Atmosphere Challenges Faith in Billions of Years

Pluto has managed to keep its atmosphere. Image courtesy of NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Joel Kontinen

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft keeps on sending new images from its flypast of Pluto. Researchers were surprised at what they saw in July when they got to see the first pictures: Pluto was anything but cold and old.

The dwarf planet is strikingly active and has glaciers and ice volcanoes.

New Scientist acknowledges that Pluto presents a big dilemma for the old age of the solar system:

One of the biggest surprises of the mission was how closely Pluto holds its atmosphere.

‘Pluto’s really tiny, so it doesn’t have the mass to hold on to an atmosphere over the age of the solar system – at least we wouldn’t have thought that,’ says Randy Gladstone of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The magazine also touched on a related mystery:

Remote observations showed that the atmosphere was dominated by nitrogen, and astronomers expected to find a tail of nitrogen streaming off the dwarf planet like a comet. But in reality, the chief material Pluto is losing to space is methane, and much less of it than predicted.

Pluto is not the odd one out. Many other planets and moons look far too young for a 4.5 billion-year-old solar system, for instance Ceres, Jupiter’s moons Io and Europa, as well as Saturn’s moons Enceladus, Mimas and Titan.

Just what we would expect from Genesis.


Grossman, Lisa. 2016. Pluto gives up its icy secrets as New Horizons data pours in. New Scientist (17 March).