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Space Science

Pluto — a Complex and Changing World 191

Posted by timothy
from the can-imagine-quite-a-bit dept.
astroengine writes "After 4 years of processing the highest resolution photographs the Hubble Space Telescope could muster, we now have the highest resolution view of Pluto's surface ever produced. Most excitingly, these new observations show an active world with seasonal changes altering the dwarf planet's surface. It turns out that this far-flung world has more in common with Earth than we would have ever imagined."
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Pluto — a Complex and Changing World

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  • High res? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by XPeter (1429763) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @10:00PM (#31030074) Homepage

    Is it just me, or do the photos look like a big blob of yellows and grays?

    • By jove you're right! These photos need to be "enhanced".

    • Re:High res? (Score:5, Informative)

      by ceoyoyo (59147) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @10:13PM (#31030154)

      Considering it normally looks like this: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100204-pluto-hubble-best-pictures/ [nationalgeographic.com], those blobs of yellow and grays are pretty impressive.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Tablizer (95088)

        I think there's a matter of interpretation as far as "sharpest picture yet". The image you reference is "over-exposed" to bring out Pluto's multiple moons. They meant it's the best pic of Pluto's *system*, not Pluto's disk. In other words, "best" depends on what you want to emphasize. The world ain't black and white (pun semi-intended).

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by ceoyoyo (59147)

          True, but it was the closest thing I could find on short notice. The point is that Pluto isn't very many pixels across. Also, I think when they said "best" they were actually talking about the new images, even though they didn't show a picture.

          There are a few more pictures here, both from Hubble and ground telescopes: http://www.solarviews.com/eng/pluto.htm [solarviews.com]

          It's not quite as simple as "the image is over-exposed." Pluto is dim and small enough to be right at the edge of telescopes' resolving power. Intens

      • by genner (694963)

        Considering it normally looks like this: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100204-pluto-hubble-best-pictures/ [nationalgeographic.com], those blobs of yellow and grays are pretty impressive.

        But the normal picture looks shiny.
        Pluto is one of those chicks that looks better from a distance.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Is it just me, or do the photos look like a big blob of yellows and grays?

      Based on my experience, all planets look like that from space. And on the surface they all look like southern California.

    • Now is this better... or worse?
    • by jbezorg (1263978)

      Is it just me, or do the photos look like a big blob of yellows and grays?

      Blurry photos.... I feel like I'm watching an episode of "In Search Of"

  • by loose electron (699583) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @10:01PM (#31030078) Homepage

    the amateur astronomer understands that Pluto is noting more than an asteroid with a big ego

    The attitude gets even bigger when its closer to the sun than Neptune.....

    How would you like to be demoted?

  • by mykos (1627575) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @10:02PM (#31030094)

    Five more years until we have a GOOD picture of Pluto. July 14, 2015...can't wait!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Horizons [wikipedia.org]

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Brad1138 (590148)
      Damn, the worlds going to end before then.
    • by slashqwerty (1099091) on Friday February 05, 2010 @01:09AM (#31031356)
      The data rate from Pluto is expected to be 1000 bits per second. It would take over two years to transfer the entire 8GB buffer at that speed. Granted, New Horizons could send back a 1MB picture in about two hours. But the mission planners have other plans for the immediate flyby. They are going send radio signals from Earth to New Horizons to measure Doppler shift (inferring the gravitational pull and mass of Pluto) and to detect the effect Pluto's atmosphere has on the signal.

      Compressed pictures should be available to the public a few days after the flyby. They are expecting the full data set to take nine months.

      So for decent pictures you had best revise your estimate:

      Five more years until we have a GOOD picture of Pluto. July 14, 2015...can't wait!

      July 2015

      • by mykos (1627575)

        Well, poo! I'm still excited, though.

    • by sznupi (719324)

      James Webb Space Telescope might beat it in giving us "good" pictures of Pluto; assuming it will be launched in 2014, as planned currently. And who knows what Herschel Space Observatory might give us soon, if pointed at Pluto...

  • At the same time (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ascari (1400977)
    It's not just the seasons that change: In those four years Pluto has gone from being a planet to not being a planet to being a planet again to being kind of a planet... Complex and changing indeed.
  • These new high-resolution views no doubt provide important new information about Pluto's seasons, but the fact that Pluto undergoes significant seasonal cycles has been known for quite a while. (Here's [google.com] one randomly chosen mention.)

  • News Flash (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MyLongNickName (822545) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @10:17PM (#31030180) Journal

    Pluto IS a planet. It was a planet when I was in school, so it will always be a planet, dadgummit.

    • if you grant me the other seven dwarves are planets: eris, makemake, haumea, sedna, orcus, 2001OR10, and quaoar

      http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/91/EightTNOs.png [wikimedia.org]

      and the other 100 or so such objects of pluto size likely to be found in the coming decades in the oort cloud

      or keep it easy and say its not a planet

      your choice, but the third graders of 2080 who have to memorize 80 planets might not be too happy with you

      face it, pluto is chump change

      • by argent (18001)

        if you grant me the other seven dwarves are planets: eris, makemake, haumea, sedna, orcus, 2001OR10, quaoar, and the other 100 or so such objects of pluto size likely to be found in the coming decades in the oort cloud

        Sure, why wouldn't I be willing to call them planets? Toss in Ceres and Pallas as well.

      • by keeboo (724305)

        if you grant me the other seven dwarves are planets: eris, makemake, haumea, sedna, orcus, 2001OR10, and quaoar

        http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/91/EightTNOs.png [wikimedia.org]

        Interesting picture.
        Pluto is already so small, I suspect that its smaller satellites (Nix and Hydra) are about the size of a golf ball, if that large.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by NotQuiteReal (608241)
        the third graders of 2080 who have to memorize 80 planets might not be too happy with you

        If it is important you'll know... if not? Meh.

        How many of the 117 elements can you name?

        How many C-List Hollywood celebrities can you name? How much SF trivia do you know?
        • by hvm2hvm (1208954)
          At least in my country the educational system doesn't always follow this "need to know" methodology (read that: they just dumped 20 year old shit on us and made us memorize it in the exact way the teachers learned it and when we were done some of the information was outdated, wrong or just pointless). I'm pretty sure it's not much better in other places.
      • by mbone (558574) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @11:51PM (#31030750)

        The solar system does not exist to make things easier for third graders. If there are 80 planets, then so be it.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by sznupi (719324)

          But our language and terminology exists to facilitate exchange of ideas. Any term which encompasses so many so different bodies looses most of any usable meaning.

      • by lawpoop (604919) on Friday February 05, 2010 @12:19AM (#31030950) Homepage Journal
        Well, Pluto does seem to have the biggest satellite. If we wanted to maintain tradition and keep Pluto a planet, this might just be the fudge factor we need.
        • by sznupi (719324)

          So Mercury, Venus and perhaps Mars are not planets?

          • by lawpoop (604919)
            Well, I'm not trying to make a rubric for determining what is or isn't a planet; I'm trying to figure out some set of rules whereby we could keep the canonical nine planets.

            According to this graph [wikipedia.org], doing non-satellites by mass puts only Eris ahead of Pluto. Maybe we could just throw Eris in, and cut it off at Pluto.
            • by bmcage (785177)

              Well, I'm not trying to make a rubric for determining what is or isn't a planet; I'm trying to figure out some set of rules whereby we could keep the canonical nine planets. According to this graph [wikipedia.org], doing non-satellites by mass puts only Eris ahead of Pluto. Maybe we could just throw Eris in, and cut it off at Pluto.

              Ceres was a canonical planet for 50 years, nobody minds it being a dwarf planet now, after having been called an asteroid. The masses are uncertain of all objects that have had no fly by. It is expected that other dwarf planets larger than pluto are out there anyway.

              • by lawpoop (604919)
                I'm curious -- how do we determine the mass on an object that has had a fly-by? By how much it affects the orbit of the fly-byer?
      • by Beowabbit (306889) <js@a[ ]rg ['q.o' in gap]> on Friday February 05, 2010 @12:24AM (#31030980) Homepage

        your choice, but the third graders of 2080 who have to memorize 80 planets might not be too happy with you

        Once upon a time, students had to memorize only four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Nowadays we recognize over a hundred, and there are a bunch of theoretical ones we can predict but have a hard time detecting. I don’t think “but people will have a hard time remembering them all, so we have to add arbitrary limit so that we don’t have so many” is a very good way of defining terms.

        I can see a good argument for saying that the solar system contains four planets and some rubble. I can see an argument for saying that it contains over a dozen planets, probably way over. I can see a good argument for saying that it consists tens of thousands of planets. I can see a good argument for saying that “planet” is not a piece of scientific terminology and letting lay usage define it.

        I can see an argument, although not a great one, for coming up with a definition that keeps the number down to a dozen, but I think the definition the IAU came up with is pretty ambiguous, since “cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit” is clearly relative, and you could define “cleared”, “neighbourhood”, and “around” in such a way that Ceres has done it (admittedly a stretch), or that Jupiter hasn’t. (There’s also the matter of “has” — do things that weren’t planets early in the history of the solar system become planets as time passes and they collect impacts?) And the IAU definition explicitly excludes anything that orbits around any star other than our sun, which to my mind makes it just silly, and means that a sizable fraction of the astronomical community is concerned with studying planets (and publishing papers calling them planets) that do not meet the IAU definition.

        Incidentally, once upon a time, any new thing discovered in orbit in the solar system other than the sun was considered a planet, so the moon, the moons of Jupiter, and the asteroids (the few then known) would all have been considered planets. If you exclude dust particles and the like, that’s still a reasonable definition for the sorts of things that “planetary scientists” study, and personally I kind of like that approach.

        • by sznupi (719324)

          Too broad a definition and it looses any meaning.

          Besides, don't forget so conveniently that, apart from "planet" and "dwarf planet" distinction, there's also "terrestrial planet", "gas giant planet", "ice giant planet"...

        • once upon a time (Score:5, Informative)

          by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquare AT gmail DOT com> on Friday February 05, 2010 @08:26AM (#31033362) Homepage Journal

          ceres was considered a planet FOR HALF A CENTURY

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceres_(dwarf_planet) [wikipedia.org]

          The classification of Ceres has changed more than once and has been the subject of some disagreement. Johann Elert Bode believed Ceres to be the "missing planet" he had proposed to exist between Mars and Jupiter, at a distance of 419 million km (2.8 AU) from the Sun.[17] Ceres was assigned a planetary symbol, and remained listed as a planet in astronomy books and tables (along with 2 Pallas, 3 Juno and 4 Vesta) for about half a century until further asteroids were discovered.[17][25][35]
          However, as other objects were discovered in the area it was realised that Ceres represented the first of a class of many similar bodies.[17] In 1802 Sir William Herschel coined the term asteroid ("star-like") for such bodies,[35] writing "they resemble small stars so much as hardly to be distinguished from them, even by very good telescopes".[36] As the first such body to be discovered, it was given the designation 1 Ceres under the modern system of asteroid numbering.[35]

          they got over it WHEN THE NEIGHBORHOOD WAS FOUND TO BE FULL OF SUCH MIDGETS

          sound familiar? when the deluge of asteroids came in, people thought "uh, its going a little crazy with these planets here, lets lop off the pretenders". now, as they search and catalog the oort cloud, they find that pluto's experience is like ceres's experience in the asteroid belt: planet, until the deluge of neighbors, then demotion. its happened before, its happening again. there's no claim to pluto's status except nostalgia. they got over it in the 1800s, you can get over it now

          pluto was discovered in in 1930, and kicked out of the club in 2006. that's a nice 75 year run, 50% more time than ceres

          the only thing you have going for your clinging to pluto is adherence to tradition. that's not a good reason to say everything and its uncle is a planet, just to preserve pluto's status. its far easier to lop off pluto, consider us to have 4 (rocky) +4 (gas) planets, and be done with it. everything else is dwarf planet/ comet/ asteroid/ etc.: detritus, flotsam and jetsam, left over rocks, of lower import than the main 8

          simple, easy, case closed

          • by Beowabbit (306889)

            the only thing you have going for your clinging to pluto is adherence to tradition.

            If this is addressed to me, I think you misunderstand me. I fully agree that there's no more reason to call Pluto a planet than Quaoar, Sedna, Ceres, and lots of other stuff. Tradition (of the last 75 years) would call Pluto a planet but not Sedna, and I agree that makes no sense. I think, though, that the thing to aim for in a definition of "planet" (if it needs to be defined at all) is "the sort of thing that planetary s

            • Now, I don't think planetary scientists, for the most part, make their decisions based on arbitrary terminology. But to take a concrete example, given how precarious its funding seemed from time to time, I suspect New Horizons would not have gotten funded if Pluto had never been considered a planet. And that would have been a shame.

              what?!

              it would be a shame to go to pluto JUST BECAUSE it is mistakenly considered a "planet." the shame would be making visitations based on historical nostalgia, rather than sou

      • by treeves (963993)
        I like that picture but I'd like it better if it included Earth's moon for comparison.
      • by syousef (465911)

        Yet you're perfectly willing to accept that the definition of a "dwarf planet" is not a subclass of the defintion of a planet???

        I have no issue with Pluto being reclassified as an object other than a planet, but the IAU's resolution was abysmal and inconsistent. By annoying those who wished to hold onto the view that Pluto is a planet, defining a planet as a body that orbits our sun (so technically an extrasolar planet isn't a planet) and making a mess of th new term they introduced (dwarf planet not a type

        • by Jiro (131519)

          The reason for defining it as a body which orbits our sun is that the definition is basically a rule which states the reason why some astronomers don't want Pluto to be a planet, the "clearing the neighborhood" definition. It's impossible to tell whether something in another solar system has cleared the neighborhood of smaller objects (unless you travel there), so they had to exclude other solar systems to get the preferred definition in.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by khallow (566160)

        or keep it easy and say its not a planet

        What's the scientific justification? I could care less about the troubles of third graders of 2080. May their tongues freeze on the 2080 analogue of the ice-cold flag pole.

        Here's my complaint with the 2006 IAU definition.

        1) "Planet" is poorly defined. "Clears the neighborhood" needs to be defined and should have been back in 2006.
        2) It abuses the English language. For some odd reason, "dwarf planets" are not considered "planets". That is not how adjectives in the English language are supposed to be u

        • by Jiro (131519)

          The "clearing the neighborhood" definition doesn't count anything in a resonance, so that would be fine. However, you'd still have to worry about normal planets since you just can't see objects smaller than a certain size, so you can't tell if the neighborhood has been cleared.

          What would really make the definition look silly is if anyone finds a Kuiper Belt object in our solar system bigger than Mercury. It's certainly possible, and they'll then have to say that Mercury is a planet and the larger Kuiper B

    • by RuBLed (995686)
      Yes it is a planet, a dwarf planet. Things change.
    • by iceborer (684929) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @11:15PM (#31030514)
      You seem a little down; perhaps your humors are imbalanced. A good leeching should fix that right up!
    • Ceres [wikipedia.org] was classified as a planet for 50 years, but we got over that--we can probably get over this, too.

  • by Brad1138 (590148) <brad1138@yahoo.com> on Thursday February 04, 2010 @11:00PM (#31030414)

    It turns out that this far-flung world has more in common with Earth than we would have ever imagined.

    Should we maybe think of classifying Pluto as a real planet?

  • by DynaSoar (714234) on Thursday February 04, 2010 @11:08PM (#31030470) Journal

    "...more in common with Earth than we would have ever imagined."

    If this is going to be along the lines of the the "Earthlike" exoplanets, it means something like Pluto has a surface, and probably some elements.

    Why is it every planet that's not obviously entirely unlike Earth is "Earthlike"? Are we really that desperate for a refuge should we ruin this planet completely?

    Hell no. Most people with even a slight interest and modest education know better, and don't try to make a point anything like that. No, these asinine statements are almost invariably made by 'science journalists' which are rapidly becoming less and less of both of those. They know they can't keep your interest recounting the bare facts so they have to come up with some bullshit that they're probably not even aware how bag of hammers stoopid it sounds. Pluto has an axial tilt, therefore it has seasons... like Earth. Sure, seasons with an average summer of 60 degrees Kelvin and winters at 30 Kelvin. How very Earthlike.

    See, there's a downside to all these magazines and other media making stuff available on the net. Since they're making it available for free, they're not making anything directly from them, so they have nothing to lose by making them crap. Then they can get you to subscribe for the better stuff. In theory. Rather than paying some real and knowledgeable science journalists, or even specialists in that field, to write better material, they go the cheap route and use the same mediocre hacks for their print versions as for their e-versions.

    So, naturally Pluto is Earthlike. It's because the source is Sciencelike. Sure, and those writers' and editors' asses are Hatlike.

    • by scdeimos (632778)

      I don't know any of this surprises you. Media outlets are very Businesslike. Like businesses, they are driven to be Profitlike. You make profit by maximising your income (none, or maybe banner clicks) while minimising your expenses (lights, power, reporters' salaries).

      Thus, we have "no truth in advertising - nor in news media."

      • by DynaSoar (714234)

        I don't know any of this surprises you. Media outlets are very Businesslike. Like businesses, they are driven to be Profitlike. You make profit by maximising your income (none, or maybe banner clicks) while minimising your expenses (lights, power, reporters' salaries).

        Thus, we have "no truth in advertising - nor in news media."

        Surpised, no. If I were I wouldn't have provided my take on the origin and nature of the problem. Not surprised at all, because I've seen far too much of it for too long. Just to pissed to keep letting it go by.

        I don't just throw a tantrum here over them. I write the author, editor or other suitable recipient at the source. And I don't intend to just leave it at that. I'm also reading up on science journalism so I can compete in that marketplace for positions where the journalism could actually be appreciat

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by WillDraven (760005)

      Minor nitpick, Pluto's seasons are primarily driven by its highly elliptical orbit.

      • by DynaSoar (714234)

        Minor nitpick, Pluto's seasons are primarily driven by its highly elliptical orbit.

        TFA credits both eccentricity and obliquity equally. I don't claim to know enough to say which is more accurate, but I do claim to be able to correctly use these alternate terms which the writer of TFA would probably scratch their head and dictionary pages over. Now that's not to blow my own horn over it, since many others know those terms also, but the following is intended as such a toot: I can name a musical piece that uses those and others correctly and explicitly enough to serve as an educational devic

    • by Tim C (15259)

      an average summer of 60 degrees Kelvin

      Nitpick, but you don't say "degrees Kelvin". I suspect that this was a typo though, as you use it correctly further on.

  • Pluto is not the only large body out there - Makemake, Haumea and Eris, among others, are just as large or larger [wikipedia.org], and also have signs of changes on their surface, but don't have the "planetary" history and don't get nearly the attention.

    • by Cochonou (576531)
      History aside, Pluto is the closest, so it makes sense to study it more in detail - excluding Ceres and Vesta, which are in the asteroid belts. Actually, every three of these planets/dwarf planets/asteroids/etc are going to get attention soon, as Pluto is going to be visited by New Horizons, and Ceres & Vesta by Dawn.
  • the alien base [wikipedia.org]?

  • If you watch that little slide show, you see.....Asia, Europe, Africa, and then the Americas - they could have tried a bit harder if all they were doing was shuffling out a fake....geeesh.
  • Ok, the picture is an browny yellow circle with some darker patches on it, not the impressive although at least the circle is round to a good precession. But pluto is a very long way away, and i think these could be the first pictures showing any surface details on pluto. In less than a year, the New Horizon probe should pass pluto, and then i'm expecting some proper photographs showing the minor-planet to a good resolution, for the first time.

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