Seeker Archives

Pluto and Moon Charon May Share Same Atmosphere

Pluto is often considered to be a 'binary planet' with its largest moon Charon and now it seems that both share more than a common orbit -- they may share a thin atmosphere. Continue reading →

Pluto is often considered to be a ‘binary planet' with its largest moon Charon and now it seems that both share more than a common orbit - they may also share a thin atmosphere.

ANALYSIS: Pluto's ‘Thick' Air Isn't Going Anywhere

This new finding arose from new models published in the journal Icarus of the Pluonian system that show gases from Pluto are being transferred to Charon. Charon has a compact orbital distance of only 12,000 miles from the center of Pluto and both bodies orbit around a common point, known as a barycenter, which is located above Pluto's icy surface. Recent observations have shown Pluto's thin atmosphere to be composed mainly of nitrogen and the assumption was that the gas is too heavy and too cold to escape Pluto's gravity.

But new simulations suggest the dwarf planet's atmosphere may be warmer and thicker than anticipated, meaning the nitrogen gas has enough energy to escape Pluto and may be exchanged to Charon and both bodies share a common atmosphere.

ANALYSIS: Pluto's Atmosphere: Big, Poisonous and Comet-like

Should any gases be present around Charon, it is too thin to be detected by ground-based observatories. But NASA's New Horizons mission, which is set to fly through the Pluto-Charon system in July 2015, has instruments that should be able to detect such a thin Charonian atmosphere and decipher if the gases originated from Pluto.

"(Gas transfer is) thought to happen all the time in astronomy, such as in the case of binary stars or exoplanets located close to their stars," Robert Johnson, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, told New Scientist. "Calculations and computer models are one thing. But here we have a spacecraft that's going to fly by and directly test our simulations, which is quite exciting."

Source: New Scientist

Artist's impression of Pluto and Charon.

The Millionth Object is... an Exoplanet On Monday, July 4, the Hubble Space Telescope celebrated its latest milestone:

one million scientific observations

. Unfortunately, we can't "see" this landmark observation as a typically picturesque Hubble photograph as it was a spectroscopic analysis of a distant exoplanet's atmosphere. Analyzing the spectrum of light from worlds orbiting other stars is one component of Hubble's capabilities, but it's most famous observations recognized by fans of the space telescope are the amazingly detailed photographs of nebulae, galaxies, stellar phenomena and cosmic explosions. After 21 years, and a million observations, Hubble has transformed our perspective of the Cosmos, so in celebration of this latest milestone, Discovery News will take you on a journey of some of Hubble's recent, most striking imagery.

Hubble's millionth observation is of the exoplanet HAT-P-7b (a.k.a. Kepler 2b), a gas giant larger than Jupiter orbiting a star 1,000 light-years from Earth. HAT-P-7b was originally discovered by ground-based observatories in 2008 and it has since been studied by NASA's Kepler space telescope. To complement these observations, Hubble has been used to analyze the exoplanet's spectrum so the chemicals present in its atmosphere can be identified. What is Hubble hoping to uncover?

Atmospheric Water "We are looking for the spectral signature of water vapor," said Drake Deming of the University of Maryland and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. "This is an extremely precise observation and it will take months of analysis before we have an answer." "Hubble demonstrated it is ideally suited for characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets, and we are excited to see what this latest targeted world will reveal."

21 Years Ago On April 24, 1990, shuttle Discovery launched with the 12 ton space telescope in its cargo bay, inserting it in a 559 kilometer (347 mile) around Earth. Last April, Hubble celebrated its 21st birthday.

"For 21 years Hubble has been the premier space science observatory, astounding us with deeply beautiful imagery and enabling ground-breaking science across a wide spectrum of astronomical disciplines," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "The fact that Hubble met this milestone while studying a faraway planet is a remarkable reminder of its strength and legacy." Bolden piloted the space shuttle during the 1991 Hubble mission (STS-31).

Servicing Missions Since its launch, Hubble has been visited five times by space shuttle crews. The first time, in 1993, was famous for the extensive work that had to be carried out on the telescope to correct its optics – particularly an out-of-shape mirror. After 10 days of spacewalks, the seven astronauts aboard shuttle Endeavour managed to give Hubble 20/20 vision. The following four service missions by Discovery (1997 and 1999), Columbia (2002) and Atlantis (2008) all served to upgrade the telescope, re-boost its orbit (to counter the effects of drag caused by Earth's tenuous atmosphere at that altitude) and fix failed equipment.

End of an Era? Now that the shuttle fleet is about to retire, Hubble no longer has an in-orbit support crew. It's by itself and some time within the next few years, the command will be sent to direct Hubble toward Earth to finish its dazzling career as a fireball as it reenters the Earth's atmosphere. Sadly, it appears Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will be canceled, so it's far from certain what shape the next "Hubble" will take. Special thanks to Ray Villard for assisting with the Hubble image selection!