Icy world on Pluto
17th July, 2015
In 2006, to the disappointment of many, Pluto lost its status as the ninth planet in our solar system. On Tuesday however, the distant world which is approximately 7.6 billion kilometres from Earth, was thrust back into the media spotlight as NASA's ‘New Horizons’ spacecraft completed a breath-taking flyby on its way to the Kuiper Belt.
It is the first time that a spacecraft has visited the dwarf planet and the images that New Horizon has already managed to transmit back to Earth have offered a fascinating insight into what was previously a relatively unknown icy body of our solar system.
- Pluto was discovered on the 18th February 1930 by Clyde W. Tombaugh.
- It takes 246 years for Pluto to complete one orbit of the sun.
- Pluto is smaller than our own moon.
- The New Horizons spacecraft is approximately the size of a grand piano.
With data taking approximately 4.5 hours to travel back to Earth from the spacecraft, NASA are only just beginning to receive the first tantalising pieces of data that New Horizons has managed to gather. In fact, Horizon collected so much data in such a relatively short fly by that it could take as long as 16 months for all of the data to be transmitted back to Earth.
What scientists have already discovered reinforces what we already knew about this icy world. The surface of Pluto is believed to be composed of around 98% nitrogen ice, combined with traces of methane and carbon monoxide.
Mountains of Ice
One of the most stunning images to have already been transmitted back to Earth is of what appear to be mountain ranges on the planet's surface. With some peaks measuring as high as 11,000ft high, scientists have been left slightly baffled as to how they may have been formed.
It is thought that Pluto's relatively thin coating of methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen ice is not strong enough to see the formation of the mountains. Scientists therefore believe that they were likely to have been formed from Pluto's water-ice bedrock. A sight to behold we are sure, if you were lucky enough to be on the planet's surface.
Temperatures like Nothing on Earth
Of course, it is hard to imagine what it would be like to live on a planet like Pluto. Here in the UK we like to complain when temperatures start to drop during the winter, but that is nothing compared to what you would experience on Pluto.
The planet is between 30 and 50 times further away than Earth's distance from the sun, making it one of the coldest bodies in our solar system. On a good day, when the distance between Pluto and the sun is at its shortest, temperatures can rise as high as -223°C (-369°F). However, drop in on Pluto when it is at its furthest from the sun and you can expect temperatures to fall as low as -233°C (-387°F).
So next time you are feeling a bit chilly on a winter's day, just remember - it could be a whole lot worse!