These Dwarf Planets are Funny Things

Regardless of how some us may feel about it, dwarf planets are here to stay. The classification, that is. Presumably the actual bodies in question will endure long after the science of astronomy is gone. I was personally devastated when Pluto got demoted to dwarf planet status, but I'm inclined to take the word of professional astronomers.

All is not lost though: Ceres got promoted from being a mere asteroid to being a dwarf planet, so I'll take that as a consolation prize. Sadly, I have indeed lost sleep over the classifications of celestial bodies, which probably means I need to get out more and stop worrying about minutia. I digress.

The Plutonian system (Pluto and its moons) are a very strange region of space. Previously, astronomers had thought that Pluto was a rather uninteresting place: just a hunk of rock floating around in the void, with one even less interesting moon dejectedly orbiting it. This is not the case. A new moon has been discovered around Pluto, bringing the total number to five. That's four more than the Earth has, although Earth's moon is much bigger.

In addition, Pluto has a tenuous atmosphere, ice caps, and large amounts of volatiles lurking in the crust. Although it is very cold, it is theorized that it sometimes gets warm enough for frozen methane to evaporate from the surface, falling back as snow. Deep in the crust it may be warm enough for pockets of liquid methane or even water to exist. Taken together, this makes Pluto a much more interesting place than we previously suspected.

When the New Horizons probe reaches Pluto sometime in 2015, it will have a lot to explore. However, another moon complicates things. Moons tend to drag debris fields along with them, mainly miserable little pieces of rock and dust. These do not sound sinister, but they have a secret weapon. At the speeds the New Horizons probe is travelling, a very small piece of rock could cause incredible damage if it was impacted. Think of a bullet travelling tens of thousands of miles an hour, hitting a fragile spacecraft. You get the idea.

1 Response

  1. Jorge
    My daughter and I will be gienttg into this either next week or the week after and quite excited!!! So far, just looking through I really like the Solar System Book and my daughter is excited to work on it and she really can't wait to work on Saturn's Brilliant Rings. Seeing her excited to start a unit is all that is important to me, along with anything else that keeps her excited! I also enjoyed the What Is The Solar System online book from NASA.

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