October 10, 2013 - When astronomers were selling the idea of a NASA
mission to Pluto, they added a sense of urgency. No, they didn’t want to scout out Pluto
as an outpost for setting up an early warning system in case of an alien invasion; planetary scientists warned that if we don’t visit the far-flung planet soon, the Pluonian atmosphere
will freeze out and collapse onto the surface as fresh nitrogen-methane snow.
This was predicted because the distant world was passing its summer season and heading out billions of miles farther from the sun along a highly elliptical orbit. The warning worked. Launched in 2006, NASA’s New Horizons
probe is now sprinting toward a 2015 rendezvous with Pluto
as the fastest manmade object ever built.
ANALYSIS: Pluto’s Atmosphere: Big, Poisonous and Comet-like
But don’t worry if the long distance runner doesn’t get there soon enough. New observations by Catherine Olkin of the Southwest Research Institute
in Boulder, Colo., predict that the tenuous nitrogen-methane-carbon monoxide atmosphere will remain buoyant year ’round. In fact, as Pluto
enters late summer, the atmosphere is now three times denser than when first measured in 1988. That means it isn’t going anywhere.
These results provide insights into the nature of Pluto’s surface crust, say the researchers. To explain the atmospheric changes there must be a rock-hard water-ice surface that apparently soaks up feeble sunlight and holds onto the heat it for a long time.
Some astronomers have previously dismissed Pluto
as an oversized comet nucleus. A comet forms a temporary atmosphere, called a coma, when it is close enough to the sun for surface ices to warm and sublimate. Some scientists called Pluto’s atmosphere just a giant and temporary coma. But comets have frothy surfaces that lose heat quickly and Pluto
doesn’t according to the researchers.