In spite of its small size, Pluto’s atmosphere has some of earth’s characteristics
The New Horizons mission recently completed the data playback of all information collected during its examination of the dwarf planet Pluto, giving scientists enough to keep them busy for years.
Pluto’s atmosphere was of particular interest and studying it presented challenges. NASA scientists and engineers developed an intricate plan for data collection. After flying by, the New Horizons spacecraft moved into Pluto’s shadow. Sunlight had to pass through the planet’s atmosphere before reaching the spacecraft. Changes in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum of light measured by New Horizons’ Alice instrument unlocked the sunlight absorption pattern, which is a very powerful method for measuring atmospheric gases.
Also, radio waves sent from Earth bend as they pass through Pluto’s atmosphere. The amount of bending of the radio waves was detected by the New Horizons Radio Science Experiment (called REX), helping decipher both the molecular mass and the temperature of the atmosphere. Combined with Occultation Experiments done on earth, the makeup of Pluto’s atmosphere could be largely pinpointed.
Like earth, Pluto’s atmospheric makeup consists primarily of nitrogen and has a blue tint. That’s not to suggest that the surface of the distant celestial body is safe for humans. No oxygen or carbon dioxide could be found and methane levels were higher than those on earth.
If that were not enough to keep vacationers away, the surface atmosphere is less than one percent as dense as earth’s, the temperature ranges between -380 and -250 degrees Fahrenheit, and there is very little protection from cosmic radiation.
As thin as Pluto’s air is, scientists speculate that the gravity is to low to prevent it from burning off and escaping. Although New Horizons’ array of cameras detected no signs of surface geysers, compounds bubbling up from beneath the planet’s surface could explain the atmosphere’s continued existence.
New Horizon did see roughly 20 layers of haze that spanned to hundreds of miles above the surface.