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Pluto's Atmosphere Could Freeze and Disappear by the Year 2030



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A high-resolution image of Pluto taken by New Horizons on July 14, 2015. The image has been color-enhanced to show the different geological features of the surface. NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

Life is tough for Pluto's dwarf planet.

Astronomers have been studying the seasonal changes of Pluto's surface pressure using a technique called ground-based stellar occultations. An occultation occurs when an object like a moon or planet blocks the light coming to Earth from a more distant object like a star, like a solar eclipse. By observing how Pluto blocks the light from distant stars, information on the atmosphere's density, pressure, and temperature can be measured

"We were able to construct the seasonal models of Pluto and how it responds to changes with the amount of sunlight it receives as it orbits the Sun, "Andrew Cole of the University of Tasmania said in a statement. "What we found was when Pluto is farthest away from the Sun, and during its winter in the northern hemisphere, nitrogen freezes out of the atmosphere."

It is already quite chilly on the surface of Pluto, with a surface temperature that varies between minus 378 and minus 396 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 228 to minus 238 degrees Celsius). Now we know that some seasons are colder than others ̵

1; cold enough for nitrogen, which makes up the majority of the atmosphere – to freeze

And the atmosphere is changing over time as well. Atmospheric pressure has increased three times over the last thirty years. Models of the dwarf planet show that most of the atmosphere will condense outwards until almost nothing remains. "What our predictions show is that by 2030 the atmosphere is going to frost out and vanish around the whole planet," Cole said.

If this happens, it will change the way that Pluto appears to us. The nitrogen freezing would reflect more sunlight, so Pluto would actually appear brighter in the sky. But the terrain of the dwarf planet will look different too. The colors observed by the New Horizons Mission to Pluto in 2015, like the bright red terrain shown in the above image, may be hidden beneath the nitrogen frost.

The findings will soon be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, and you can see the paper on the pre-publication archive arXiv






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