7 Surprising Facts About Pluto

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto, the ninth planet of the classical solar system was, until 2015, largely a mystery—a few pixels 3.6 billion miles from the Sun. When NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrived at the diminutive object in the far-off Kuiper Belt, planetary scientists discovered a geologist's Disneyland—a mind-blowing world of steep mountains, smooth young surfaces, ice dunes, and a stunning blue atmosphere. To learn more, Mental Floss spoke to Kirby Runyon, a planetary geomorphologist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and a scientist on the NASA New Horizons geology team. Here is what you need to know about Pluto, the small world with the biggest heart in the solar system.

1. 248 EARTH YEARS = 1 PLUTO YEAR

At 1473 miles in diameter—about half the width of the United States—Pluto is the smallest of the nine classical planets and the largest discovered "trans-Neptunian object" (i.e., an object beyond the planet Neptune). As could be expected, it is cold on Pluto's surface: around -375°F. Its gravity is about 1/15 that of Earth. It has five moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx. Charon is the largest of the moons by far, with a diameter about half that of Pluto. It takes about 248 Earth years for Pluto to circle the Sun, and during that time, its highly elliptical orbit takes it as far as 49 astronomical units from our star, and as close as 30.

2. THE DISNEY DOG IS CONNECTED TO THE PLANET.

Pluto the planet was discovered on February 18, 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was named later that year by Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old girl in England. She first learned of the new, nameless planet from her grandfather, who mentioned it while reading the newspaper. Burney was interested in Greek and Roman mythology at the time, and she immediately suggested Pluto.

Her grandfather was impressed, and mentioned it in a note to a friend of his, who taught astronomy at Oxford. The astronomy professor passed word to Lowell Observatory, and the astronomers there took an immediate liking to it. It helped that the first two letters of Pluto are the initials of the observatory's (then dead) founder, Percival Lowell. Note that Burney did not get the name from the Disney dog. Just the opposite: The dog, which premiered the same year as Pluto was discovered, was likely named by Walt to ride the planet's publicity wave. Scientists and cartoonists alike have yet to explain how the then-unseen planet and dog ended up being more or less the same color.

3. A PLUTO SYSTEM SPACE ELEVATOR IS TECHNICALLY POSSIBLE.

Space elevators are a science fiction staple, and advances in carbon nanotubes have made their prospects, if not likely, then certainly possible. The idea is to bring a large object such as an asteroid into a geostationary orbit at Earth's equator, and essentially connect that object and the Earth with a cable or structure. You could then lift things into orbit without the need for rockets. According to Runyon, the unique orbital characteristics of Pluto and Charon create interesting opportunities for the very, very distant future of engineering.

The two worlds are tidally locked. Charon's orbit is precisely the same duration as Pluto's rotation, meaning that if you stood on Pluto's surface, the moon would hover over the same spot, never rising or setting. "Because they are binary, tidally locked, literally orbiting each other in a perfect circle, you could build a space elevator that goes from one planet to the other, from Pluto to Charon," Runyon tells Mental Floss. "And it would touch the ground in both places, physically linking them. And you could literally climb a ladder from one to the other."

4. ITS HEART IS IN THE RIGHT PLACE—THE 40 PERCENT OF THE PLANET WE'VE SEEN.

In 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft arrived at the Pluto system and turned a few pixels into a real world. The famous first image released by NASA is not a straight-on shot from Pluto's side, with the top being the North Pole and bottom being the south. It is in reality a view from Pluto's higher latitudes, looking down. (The heart, in other words, is quite higher up on the planet than the picture suggests.) Because New Horizons was a flyby craft and not an orbiter, planetary scientists don't know what 40 percent of the planet looks like.

5. ITS BIZARRE ORBIT AND ROTATION ARE A MYSTERY.

The traditional classroom solar system model of a light bulb as the Sun and planets on wires extending from it represents a nice flat orbital plane known as the ecliptic, and for most of the solar system, that's pretty close to the truth. But not for Pluto, which has a 17-degree inclination relative to the ecliptic. Moreover, like Uranus, its rotation is tipped on its side, and it rotates backward (east to west). No one knows why, according to Runyon. "It's probably the result of an ancient impact," he says. "One not strong enough to disrupt planet but enough to tip on its side. This might have been the Charon-forming impact, which would be similar to how our moon is formed."

6. WE WERE WRONG ABOUT ITS ATMOSPHERE …

Astronomers have long known that Pluto has an atmosphere. During stellar occultations (that is, when it moves in front of stars), astronomers can see the star dim, and then completely go out, and then reappear dimly, and then return to its full brightness. That dimming is caused by the planet's atmosphere. Astronomers are furthermore able to track its density over time. Because Pluto is so far from the Sun, the ice on its surface sublimates: It goes from a solid directly to a gas without first becoming a liquid. When Pluto reached perihelion (as close to the Sun as its gets in an orbit) in 1989, the expectation was that the atmosphere would begin to collapse entirely: that it would freeze out, basically, and fall to the surface.

"A good comparison is when it snows on Earth," says Runyon. "Snow is basically the water vapor in the atmosphere freezing out and falling to the surface, leaving Earth's atmospheric density slightly lower than it would be otherwise." In Pluto's case, the thought was that the complete atmosphere would freeze out and fall onto the planet's surface.

It didn't happen. "Pluto's atmosphere is denser than we thought it would be," Runyon explains. "Even now as it's moving farther from the Sun, its atmosphere is puffier than ever." One model says that while the atmosphere does thin as ices fall to the surface, it never completely freezes and falls.

7. … WHICH IS ELECTRIC BLUE.

Scientists on the New Horizons team didn't expect to see Pluto's atmosphere during the flyby. "When we spun New Horizons around after closest approach and looked back at Pluto—being basically backlit from the Sun—we could see the atmosphere," he says. "We knew we'd be able to detect it, but to see it, and to see that the sunrise and sunset on Pluto is this ethereal electric blue—nobody anticipated that." Runyon says that the New Horizons found discrete atmospheric layers that could be traced for hundreds of miles. "Pluto has what's called a stably stratified atmosphere. The coldest layer is on the bottom and it gets warmer as you go up," he says.

"In science, you test hypotheses, but before you can even do that you need to figure out what's there in the first place. To me, that's the most exciting part of science. The most exciting part of space exploration is to see something for the first time, and that's what New Horizons was. And to turn around and look back at the Sun and see a beautiful atmosphere with the gorgeous layers through it is just astonishing," he says. 

The Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend—Here's the Best Way to Watch It

mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images
mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images

We're nearing the end of 2019, but there are still a few astronomical events to catch before the year is s out. This Sunday—November 17—the Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak. Here's everything you need to know before viewing the spectacle.

What is the Leonid meteor shower?

Like all meteor showers, the Leonids are caused by meteoroids from outer space burning up on their descent toward Earth. These particular shooting stars come from the rocky tail of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Each November, debris from the comet pummels the Earth's atmosphere, causing meteors to light up the sky at rates that can exceed 1000 per hour.

The Leonids won't reach that frequency this year. According to EarthSky, the meteors would peak at a rate of around 10 to 15 per hour in a dark, moonless sky. But because the moon will be bright this weekend, sky-gazers will likely see less of them, with only the brightest shooting stars shining through.

How to See the Leonids

For your best chance of spotting the Leonids, look up the night of Sunday, November 17 and early in the morning of Monday, November 18. The shower reaches its peak after midnight. The moon will be in its waning gibbous phase at that time, so even with clear skies, viewing conditions won't be ideal. But there are ways to increase your chances of seeing as many meteors as possible. Try finding a large object to stand under—such as a tree or building—that will block your view of the moon. If you don't see anything right away, be patient: The more time you give your eyes to adjust to the darkness, the more likely you are to spot a shooting star.

What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For the remainder of 2019, that means October 31-November 20. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

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