In 2015, as the New Horizons spacecraft passed Pluto, it took an image showing a hazy atmosphere on the dwarf planet. Now, new data is helping to explain how the haze around Pluto is formed. The Infrared Astronomical Stratospheric Observatory (SOFIA) on board NASA’s aircraft made a long-range observation of Pluto.
These observations suggest that the mist around Pluto is made up of tiny particles that linger in the atmosphere for longer rather than immediately falling to the surface. The data suggest that these haze particles are being actively replenished, correcting predictions about the fate of Pluto’s atmosphere as it moves into cooler space sprees in orbit around the sun for 248 years.
In early long-range observations, scientists involved in the project said there had been suggestions that there might be haze around Pluto. However, until SOFIA observations, there is still no substantial evidence to confirm its existence. Scientists say they are now questioning whether the atmosphere around Pluto will collapse in the next few years, saying it may be more resilient than expected.
SOFIA SPENT TWO WEEKS STUDYING PLUTO BEFORE NEW HORIZONS PASSED THE DWARF PLANET IN JULY 2015. The observations were taken during a lunar eclipse, when Pluto cast a faint shadow over the Earth’s surface. SOFIA observed Pluto’s atmosphere with infrared and visible wavelengths. These observations, combined with subsequent New Horizons observations, provide the most complete picture of Pluto’s atmosphere using radio waves and ultraviolet light.
Data show that in distant sunlight, the ice on Pluto’s surface vaporizes under the sun’s rays, creating a blue, hazy atmosphere. The main components of the atmosphere around Pluto are nitrogen, as well as small amounts of methane and carbon monoxide. Haze particles form in an atmosphere more than 20 miles above the surface, as methane and other gases slowly fall like rain on Pluto’s surface, creating haze particles. SOFIA shows that these particles are between 0.06 and 0.10 microns thick and very small. The new data allow scientists to reassess predictions about the fate of Pluto’s atmosphere.