Artist’s concept on Charon (foreground) and Pluto (background)
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft beamed back on Earth data that confirmed the presence of an abundance of frozen methane on Pluto’s surface. The piano-sized probe is slated to perform a historic flyby of the icy dwarf planet on July 14.
But finding methane on Pluto was not a surprised to scientists. Researchers have been speculating on the existance of the greenhouse gas on the planet for over four decades
“We already knew there was methane on Pluto but these are our first detections,”
noted Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Currently the mission team plans to gather data on the properties of the gas in various locations on the planet’s surface. At the current moment, the probe is located at a 9.7 million-mile distance from Pluto and nearly 3 billion miles from Earth, and it races by 30,380 miles per hour toward its destination. Because of the distance between Earth and the craft a command signal beamed from our planet requires nine hours to reach New Horizons.
Its main goals are to map the surface of Pluto and its moon Charon, to analyze their atmosphere, to look for an atmosphere on Charon, to asses surface temperatures on both space bodies, to seek hidden satellites of Pluto, to expand investigation to other objects in the Kuiper Belt.
The news about methane on Pluto surface was released by a team of researchers led by Dale Cruikshank, mission team member at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The methane was detected by New Horizon’s infrared instrument.
On Earth, methane has no color and no odor, but on Pluto methane may reveal many clues on the planet’s ancient history. Some astrophysicists speculate that methane on the dwarf planet originated in a solar nebula that gave birth to our solar system.
On July 14, New Horizons will observe for the first time how sunlight interacts with the particles in the planet’s atmosphere. A researcher and member of the New Horizons mission envisioned the sun as seen by Horizons as a “trillion watt light bulb.”
But until that day it is important for the spacecraft to remain fully functional and responsive to the mission controllers’ commands. The project manager said that the craft was on its final path toward the final encounter.
But the tiny probe may also help us learn whether there is a hidden ocean underneath the planet’s icy crust. Several researchers believe that there may be not only methane on Pluto but also liquid water. Still, in order to detect it, the spacecraft will have to look beyond the nitrogen ice layer which is covering a thicker layer of water ice.
Image Source: NASA’s Mission to Pluto