Hubble reveals Pluto as “a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes”

Something else for the Ingenious Mr Hooke to smile about. In preparation for an encounter with Nasa’s New Horizons mission, led by honker-in-chief Alan Stern, the Hubble Space Telescope had been looking closely again at the dwarf planet Pluto. And, as reported by the BBC, by comparing the newer images (taken in 2002-2003) with earlier Hubble images taken in 1994 [added link] they’ve seen evidence that, “The icy dwarf planet Pluto undergoes dramatic seasonal changes” in its 248-year-long cycle. Much more information at the Hubble Newscenter.

Hubble’s view isn’t sharp enough to see craters or mountains, if they exist on the surface, but Hubble reveals a complex-looking and variegated world with white, dark-orange, and charcoal-black terrain. The overall color is believed to be a result of ultraviolet radiation from the distant Sun breaking up methane that is present on Pluto’s surface, leaving behind a dark, molasses-colored, carbon-rich residue. Astronomers were very surprised to see that Pluto’s brightness has changed — the northern pole is brighter and the southern hemisphere is darker and redder. Summer is approaching Pluto’s north pole, and this may cause surface ices to melt and refreeze in the colder shadowed portion of the planet. The Hubble pictures underscore that Pluto is not simply a ball of ice and rock but a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes.

Below the fold astronomers explain the significance of the revealed changes. In the meantime, as spotted at WiredScience, here’s an animation of the latest Hubble images of Pluto. Video Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute).
Adds For a rough comparison here is the Nasa/Esa animation of the Hubble images taken in 1994. These images were taken in blue light when Pluto was at a distance of 3 billion miles from Earth.

Astronomers explain the significance of new Hubble images revealing changes on the surface of Pluto. Video Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Estacion (STScI).

From the text of the NASA press release

New Horizons will pass by Pluto so quickly that only one hemisphere will be photographed in detail. Particularly noticeable in the Hubble images is a bright spot that has been independently noted to be unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost. It is a prime target for New Horizons. “Everybody is puzzled by this feature,” Buie said. New Horizons will get an excellent look at the boundary between this bright feature and a nearby region covered in pitch-black surface material.

“The Hubble images also will help New Horizons scientists better calculate the exposure time for each Pluto snapshot which is important for taking the most detailed pictures possible,” Buie said. With no chance for re-exposures, accurate models for the surface of Pluto are essential for properly exposed images.

The Hubble images surface variations a few hundred miles across that are too coarse for understanding surface geology. But in terms of surface color and brightness, Hubble reveals a complex-looking world with white, dark-orange and charcoal-black terrain. The overall color is believed to be a result of ultraviolet radiation from the distant sun breaking up methane present on Pluto’s surface, leaving behind a dark and red-carbon-rich residue.

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  • joeCanuck

    It’s amazing that even the remotest regions of the solar system would appear to heat affected by the sun.

    Pete, any more word on that fireball seen a few days ago over there? Anything found?

  • David Crookes

    Thanks again, Pete! And if dramatic atmospheric changes can happen on Pluto, they should be able to happen here as well. Maybe ultraviolet rays from the sun will be able to break up some of the political methane that we have all had to breathe for so long.

  • joeCanuck

    David,

    Less hot air should mitigate global warming even if just a teensy bit, regardless of what Sammy, our former Environment guy thinks.

  • Pete Baker

    I’ve added a link to, and an animation of, the earlier Hubble images of Pluto from 1994.

    Joe

    I haven’t heard of anyone finding anything. I suspect there’s nothing to find.

    But someone did push a hoax video of the fireball towards me on the night of the first reports.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, joeCanuck! I’m incorribly hopeful about the whole thing. If we work together, Northern Ireland may become a model for all kinds of what might smarmily be called environmental good practice. You can think of several desirable things. Well-insulated houses with small windows and no central heating. An end of poisoning the soil with chemical powders. People realizing that they don’t need to drive enormous great minibus-jeeps that puff out black smoke every time you hit the accelerator. A subsidized public transport system, including a metro for Belfast. Every child planting a hundred hardwood trees before leaving primary school. Merrily painted boats sailing on our rejuvenated canals. Sewage being composted and used to enrich the land. Seaweed likewise. Authentic non-tourist-shop jewellery being made from opaque indigenous Irish stones. People baking their own wheaten and treacle bread every night. And so on.

  • joeCanuck

    David,
    A subsidized public transport system should be high on the list of any city’s priorities. I like London’s conjestion tax too.
    Belfast centre probably can’t sustain an underground metro due to the soil conditions; estuarine mud called sleech.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, joeCanuck (#6)! Yes, it’ll be difficult enough. Whether you’re a politician or a metrognome, it never helps when the status quo is a stinking quagmire.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    I suppose the relevance is that Belfast can be seen from outer Space.

  • Pete Baker

    Nope, Fitzy. ;op

  • joeCanuck

    Move along FitzjamesHorse. Nothing to see here (for you). I cannot fathom why you read these posts; obvious from the first word, maybe first 3 words, in the title that you would be “annoyed”.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Oh I feel if a person goes to all the trouble of initiating a post, I should at least make an effort to comment.

  • Kevsterino

    The first 3 words are blatantly untrue. Everybody knows Pluto is a dog.

    Now Goofy, on the other hand, drives a car!! What is Goofy?

  • Pete Baker

    Fitzy

    Like you comment on every single post…

    But I’ll indulge you this once.

    I’ve been blogging posts on science, particularly astronomy, since I joined the Slugger team. Waaay back when.

    So your annoyance is noted. But pointless.

    And your comments noting that annoyance, therefore, irrelevant.

    If Mick, the only person who has a say in this, has a problem with my “hobby” posts, then he’ll tell me.

    Hint: He doesn’t.

    I’d suggest that whenever you see a post that you think might be somehow connected to the wider universe beyond the insular deceit that some call a political process here, just move along to the next post.

    There’s always a next post.

  • Kevsterino

    Never trust a grown man with less than 3 hobbies.

  • Pete Baker

    Same goes to you Kevsterino.

    Now, if you have something to say about the Hubble images of Pluto?

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Indeed Mrs Baker I am looking forward to your next post already.

  • Kevsterino

    Hey, I enjoy the astronomy posts. I have several favorite sites I visit for upcoming events and such.

    Sorry if you took offense.

  • Kevsterino

    This is a nice quick daily visit:
    http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html