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Welcome to Pluto and Charon at Last!

Welcome to Pluto and Charon at Last!

Some awesome facts about and around Pluto.

Nine years since New Horizons launched for the Kuiper Belt bodies, and finally we get the exquisite images we’ve been waiting on for so long – and they’re as fantastic as could ever be expected.

Feat of Humanity

Those space-fans among us have no doubt been keeping up with the news coming from the edge of our Solar System. The spacecraft ‘New Horizons’ did its fly-by of the Pluto-Charon system this month of July, and NASA scientists haven’t been able to sleep from all their partying ever since the first photos were beamed back to Earth.

Why all the excitement?  After all, Pluto’s no longer a planet, and it’s just a bunch of pictures – right?

Not when these ‘pictures’ are by far the clearest, most detailed ever taken of the dwarf-planets.  On top of that, it’s always a feat of Humanity to send a sophisitcated camera up into space – and then find that its camera still works after spending nine years in cold, empty space.

The larger body is Pluto, in the above image, and the smaller one is Charon.

Pluto’s competition

For those that remembered when Pluto got demoted: that had to do with all the new, planet-like worlds being discovered mainly within the Kuiper Belt.  Worlds like Quaoar, Makemake, Haumea, Eris, and Sedna; some of which are even bigger than Pluto.

The dilemma became: either consider all these other worlds as ‘planets’, too, or demote Pluto.  It was obviously much easier to do the latter.  As a recap, the three criteria a ‘planet’ must fulfill now are:

Be ‘round’ (ie, be large enough for its gravity to make it round).

Be orbiting the Sun.

Finally, it must also be the predominant object in its orbital path…

The last point is new; for example, within Jupiter’s orbital path are two large collections of asteroids – the Trojans – one in front of the jovian and one behind.  However, since Jupiter comprises nearly 100% of the mass in that orbit (ie, those asteroids, statistically, don’t ‘count’), it can, statistically, be considered the only planetary body in that orbit.

Same goes for the Earth… the asteroids that orbit within the same plane as Earth are called ‘Near-Earth Objects’ (NEOs).  Again, Earth comprises nearly 100% of the mass in its orbital plane.

Unfortunately for Pluto, it cannot say the same thing.  It shares its orbit with all these other Kuiper Belt objects, many of which are nearly comparable in size, and sometimes even larger in size.  But, Pluto’s not the only one with this predicament – the asteroid Ceres also has this problem.

Back to Pluto…

Recycling surface

Surprisingly, Pluto’s surface is one of the youngest in the Solar System; not more than 100 million years old, which means it has a tectonic or geologic process that recycles its icy crust.  NASA scientists claim Pluto can’t have any heating due to the Sun nor due to the force of gravity – even though it has a moon that’s half its size – so for now they’re stumped as to what’s renewing Pluto’s surface.

Maybe it’s out-gassing, since Pluto is nothing but a large comet…  Just my hypothesis, though. It also has mountain belts, with some peaks reaching 3,500 meters (11,000 feet) into its tenuous ‘atmosphere’. That’s got nothing on Charon, though…  It has literally got an icy facsimile of Mordor on its north pole!  Not only that, but it also has an odd-looking formation jutting out of a depression – perhaps we can refer to that as its ‘Dark Tower’.

More awesomeness

Aside from the abnormally large moon Charon, Pluto also has four much smaller moons, named Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos.  Each is the size of your typical asteroid – only a dozen kilometers wide, or so.

In keeping with the Underworld theme – Pluto is the Roman god of the Underworld, and Charon is the Greek ferryman of the Underworld – Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos are each taken from an aspect of Greek or Roman myth.  Nix is a Greek goddess inhabiting the Underworld, Hydra is the many-headed beast that Herakles (Hercules) had to kill, Styx is the river that Charon ferries on, and Kerberos (Cerberus in Latin) is a mythical three-headed dog – ‘Fluffy’ in the Harry Potter series.

Now that the Pluto fly-by has come and gone, the New Horizons craft is expected to carry on to some of the other Kuiper Belt objects – supposedly – and snap cool images of them as well.  More awesomeness to come!

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Jeffrey Daniels
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