Pluto is the ninth-largest and tenth-most-massive known object directly orbiting the Sun. It is the largest known trans-Neptunian object by volume but is less massive than Eris. Pluto is a dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt, a ring of bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. It was the first and the largest Kuiper belt object to be discovered. After Pluto was discovered in 1930, it was declared to be the ninth planet from the Sun. Beginning in the 1990s, its status as a planet was questioned following the discovery of several objects of similar size in the Kuiper belt and the scattered disc, including the dwarf planet Eris. This led the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006 to formally define the term “planet”—excluding Pluto and reclassifying it as a dwarf planet.
Some facts about Pluto
Orbital period- 247.8 yrs
Length of a Day- 6.39 days
Axis tilt- 123 degrees
Distance from the Sun- 39.5AU (5.9billion km)
Like other Kuiper belt objects, Pluto is primarily made of ice and rock and is relatively small—one-sixth the mass of the Moon and one-third its volume. It has a moderately eccentric and inclined orbit during which it ranges from 30 to 49 astronomical units or AU (4.4–7.4 billion km) from the Sun. This means that Pluto periodically comes closer to the Sun than Neptune, but a stable orbital resonance with Neptune prevents them from colliding. Light from the Sun takes 5.5 hours to reach Pluto at its average distance (39.5 AU).
Pluto has five known moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. This moon system might have formed by a collision between Pluto and other similar-sized bodies early in the history of the solar system.
Charon, the biggest of Pluto’s moons, is about half the size of Pluto itself, making it the largest satellite relative to the planet it orbits in our solar system. It orbits Pluto at a distance of just 12,200 miles (19,640 kilometers). For comparison, our moon is 20 times farther away from Earth. Pluto and Charon are often referred to as a double planet. Charon’s orbit around Pluto takes 153 hours—the same time it takes Pluto to complete one rotation. This means Charon neither rises nor sets, but hovers over the same spot on Pluto’s surface. The same side of Charon always faces Pluto, a state called tidal locking.
Pluto’s other four moons are much smaller, less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide. They’re also irregularly shaped, not spherical like Charon. Unlike many other moons in the solar system, these moons are not tidally locked to Pluto. They all spin and don’t keep the same face towards Pluto.
Structure and Atmosphere
Pluto is about two-thirds the diameter of Earth’s moon and probably has a rocky core surrounded by a mantle of water ice. Interesting ices like methane and nitrogen frost coat its surface. Due to its lower density, Pluto’s mass is about one-sixth that of Earth’s moon. Pluto’s surface is characterized by mountains, valleys, plains, and craters. The temperature on Pluto can be as cold as -375 to -400 degrees Fahrenheit (-226 to -240 degrees Celsius).
Pluto has a thin, tenuous atmosphere that expands when it comes closer to the sun and collapses as it moves farther away—similar to a comet. The main constituent is molecular nitrogen, though molecules of methane and carbon monoxide have also been detected.
When Pluto is close to the sun, its surface ices sublimate (changing directly from solid to gas) and rise to temporarily form a thin atmosphere. Pluto’s low gravity (about six percent of Earth’s) causes the atmosphere to be much more extended in altitude than our planet’s atmosphere. Pluto becomes much colder during the part of each year when it is traveling far away from the sun. During this time, the bulk of the planet’s atmosphere may freeze and fall as snow to the surface.
The New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto in July 2015, is the first and so far only attempt to explore Pluto directly. Launched in 2006, it captured its first (distant) images of Pluto in late September 2006 during a test of the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. The images, taken from a distance of approximately 4.2 billion kilometers, confirmed the spacecraft’s ability to track distant targets, critical for maneuvering toward Pluto and other Kuiper belt objects.