Pluto’s New Horizons

Facts we learned—and stuff people are wondering about—from the exploration mission so far. /

In The Case for Pluto, Alan Boyle says our love for the dwarf planet has less to do with our affinity for Mickey Mouse’s dog than with our affection for the underdog. “For kids, Pluto ranks right up there with the little engine that could,” he wrote. And when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006 created a definition for a “planet” that excluded the objects past Neptune, national pride in the only American-discovered planet played into the backlash.

In July, however, interest in Pluto reached an all-time high as NASA’s New Horizons space probe flew by the planet, transmitting photos that rekindled imaginations and (as one team member put it) sent “a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing board.” Here are a few facts we learned about Pluto over the last few weeks (some of which are new to everyone on planet Earth, some of which were just news to Behemoth editors):

1. It’s red.

Or a kind of reddish-brown. Researchers have known this for decades, but the New Horizons images are “allowing us to correlate the color of different places on the surface with their geology and soon, with their compositions,” principal investigator Alan Stern said. The dwarf planet isn’t red for the same reason Mars is. On Mars, the red is rust (iron oxide). On Pluto, it’s from something called tholins—a “gunk” (that’s the term NASA uses!) produced when methane gas in the atmosphere is struck by the sun’s ultraviolet rays. It doesn’t occur naturally on Earth, but it’s on other solar system bodies like Saturn’s moon Titan and Neptune’s Triton.

2. Pluto’s “heart” is beating.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 28 / August 6, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note

    Issue 28: Meeting an octopus, Wikipedia’s world, discoveries and poetry on Pluto.

  2. The Aliens in Our Oceans

    An octopus’s thoughts are not our thoughts. /

  3. Random Article

    I put Wikipedia’s promise of a comprehendible world to the test. /

  4. Pluto’s Heart

    ‘This cloud-tattooed heart / So carelessly worn / Orbits everything’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 28: Links to amazing stuff /

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