What have we learned about Pluto?

Radio signals traveling at the speed of light take 4 hours and 23 minutes to get back to earth. We will not have all the data until late 2016.


It is over seven months since the New Horizons satellite flyby of Pluto.

What have we learned since then?

We are still learning a lot because we are still receiving data.

How come so long?

Remember, New Horizons traveled over 3 billion miles to get to Pluto.


Think how you lose contact on your cell phone when the nearest cell tower is more than a few miles away.

Radio signals traveling at the speed of light take 4 hours and 23 minutes to get back to earth. We will not have all the data until late 2016.

What have we learned so far?

Pluto is not just a frozen rock as we had thought. It has a primarily methane atmosphere that was a surprise to most scientists.

Though much thinner than earth, it extends over 60 miles up from the surface.

Pluto has an active geologic surface where large mountains and deep canyons have formed.

The mountains are made of a form of water ice which, at -390F degrees, is as hard as rocks.

There are large flat plains created by flowing material with few craters which indicate that they are relatively new, no more than a few million years old.

These areas are made up of a Nitrogen, Methane and Carbon Dioxide mixture frozen ice with the consistency of silly putty.

It flows like a glacier between mountains and fills lower areas forming large plains.

There are five moons revolving around Pluto: Charon, Hydra, Styx, Nix and Kerobos.

Charon has a canyon four times as long and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon indicating massive geologic activity is still occurring.

Based on the composition of both Pluto and Charon, Pluto’s largest moon was created by a massive collision between Pluto and what became its largest moon Charon.

This is how we believe Earth’s moon was created.

Why is it important to know about a place as remote as Pluto in the first place?

Pluto is 41 times as far from the sun as the earth is. It is in a part of the solar system called the Kuiper Belt which is made up of thousands of asteroid type “mini” planets.

With our new knowledge of Pluto and other Kuiper Belt objects (CBOs) we have another piece of the puzzle that needs to be fit together to explain how our solar system has evolved over its 4.5 billion year history.

Many of these CBOs are 600 to over 1000 miles in diameter.

Any theory of the solar systems evolution must explain how Pluto developed with its current makeup and surface geology.

The goal is to develop an all-inclusive model for the solar systems evolution that completely explains not only our new information Pluto but also the data on all the other planets and moons.

Now the real prize. An accurate model for a solar system’s life process will allow us to more accurately detect signs of life in the many planets being discovered around other stars!

The next meeting of the Northern Michigan Astronomy Club (NOMAC) will be March 10, 2016 in room 311 HESC at North Central Michigan College at 7:30. Come and join us.


Mick Groszko is an amateur astronomer and astrophotographer in the Petoskey area and can be contacted at mgroszko1@aol.com