Recent findings from the New Horizons team reveal that Pluto’s third-largest satellite Nix is covered in the purest water ice yet observed in the dwarf planet system, even purer in spectra than what was seen on its slightly larger sibling Hydra. This analysis further supports the hypothesis that Pluto’s moons were created in an impact event that formed the Pluto-Charon system, over 4 billion years ago.
Discovered in June 2005, distant Pluto’s outermost moon Hydra it thought to have formed during the same collision four billion years ago that created the Pluto-Charon system that we see today. Yet despite its age this 31-mile (50-km) -long moon appears remarkably clean and bright, as witnessed by New Horizons during its close pass through the Pluto system in July 2015.
Hockey fans take note: future visitors to Pluto may want to bring along their sticks and skates—the distant planet may harbor some pristine ice in the form of frozen ponds and lakes! (NASA might have to work on a lightweight, collapsible Zamboni first though.)
We could be calling it Cloudgate—”leaked” information from internal emails identifying structures in Pluto’s already hazy atmosphere that could very well be clouds, based on a March 4 article in New Scientist.
The image above shows sections of a New Horizons image attached to an email sent by SwRI scientist John Spencer, in which he noted particularly bright areas in Pluto’s atmosphere. “In the first image an extremely bright low altitude limb haze above south-east Sputnik on the left, and a discrete fuzzy cloud seen against the sunlit surface above Krun Macula (I think) on the right,” he wrote.
Whether you want to call it a planet, dwarf planet, Kuiper Belt Object, or some or none of the above, there’s no denying that Pluto and its family of moons are true curiosities in the Solar System. Not only does little Pluto have one moon — Charon — that’s so massive in comparison that they both actually orbit each other around a central point outside the radius of either (if you feel like adding “binary” to whatever term you prefer to use, go right ahead) but it also has four other smaller moons in orbit that kinda sorta break the rules of how moons are “supposed to” behave.
When New Horizons made its close pass pf Pluto on July 14, 2015, it did much more than just take pretty pictures; it was also scanning the planet with a suite of science instruments designed to determine the nature of its surface, atmosphere, composition, and other key characteristics. One of these instruments was the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), an infrared scanner that can detect the unique molecular “fingerprints” of particular elements and compounds like methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide… and water (one of our favorites!)
At first the data returned from LEISA showed only a surprisingly small amount of water ice across Pluto’s surface. But that was water ice in its pure form; when researchers took into consideration ice containing a mixture of water and other materials they found a much more widespread distribution across the surface area visible to New Horizons.