Pluto Has A Red Atmosphere That Is Collapsing

Pluto’s red-tinted atmosphere is collapsing, according to the New York Times and a statement given by NASA’s New Horizons team on Friday.

Atmospheric scientists were able to determine through telescopic study from Earth that Pluto’s atmosphere has actually thickened over the last 26 years. However, the total mass of the atmosphere on the dwarf planets seems to have decreased by half in the last two years.

New Horizons team member Michael Summers, a professor of planetary science and astronomy at George Mason University in Virginia, told the New York Times, “We know that Pluto’s atmosphere shrank because we’ve been studying it from ground-based telescopes — watching what happens when the dwarf planet passes in front of a star, and studying how it blocks out the star’s light.”

Pluto's atmosphere may be collapsing
New Horizons image of Pluto with halo-like atmospheric haze, backlit by the Sun

“And now we know more about that atmosphere because images taken by New Horizons show Pluto’s silhouette surrounded by a ring of sunlight, revealing a hazy atmosphere reaching out to about 100 miles above the surface,” continued Summers.

One reason for the timeliness of the decade-long mission was all about location. It was known that Pluto would make its closest approach to the sun in 1989. The New Horizons team theorized that as it moved farther away along its 248-year elliptical orbit, temperatures would drop and Pluto’s atmosphere, then thought to be “mostly methane and nitrogen,” would begin to “freeze and eventually disappear.”

“We wanted to get there while there was still an atmosphere to study,” said planetary scientist S. Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the team.

Interestingly, as previously detailed in the Inquisitr, Pluto’s atmosphere is red, unlike Mars, where the planet’s redness is due to the soil.

True-color image of Pluto reveals a reddish tinge to the planet's atmosphere
True-color image of Pluto reveals a reddish tinge to the planet’s atmosphere

Per Chemistry World, Pluto’s fiendish red atmosphere may be home to a complex concoction of hydrocarbons, such as ethylene and acetylene, from the breakdown of methane stimulated by sunlight.

The hydrocarbon compounds become denser than the surrounding methane and condense into the pictured atmospheric haze when they descend into colder regions and form into a mist of icy particles. The rays of the sun then reach the particles and convert them into reddish-brown tholins.

All this takes place within the dwarf planet’s minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures.

It is tholins that give Pluto its characteristic photochemical red hue. These chemicals are not naturally produced on Earth.

One image sent back, taken from behind Pluto, revealed two distinct layers of haze. One layer is approximated to be 50 miles (80km) above the surface, and the other about 30 miles (50km), according to HNGN.

Previously, as laid out by Tech Times, it was thought that the atmosphere only reached 20 or so miles above Pluto’s surface. Earlier scientific calculations led to theories that temperatures would be too warm for hazes to form at altitudes higher than 20 miles (30 kilometers).

The new images reveal this chemical reaction to be occurring more than 90 miles above the surface, according to a NASA video, and scientists can’t explain this completely.

“We’re going to need some new ideas to figure out what’s going on,” said Summers in a NASA statement.

Enthusiasts can follow emerging details of Pluto’s atmosphere and reasons why it is collapsing with the hashtag #PlutoFlyby.

[Image via NASA]