Meeting Pluto (The Planet)

NASA made history this week, once again, when the project New Horizons, launched 9 years ago, reached the ‘ex-planet’ Pluto and its surrounding moons. Ever since it has arrived, it’s been sending us information from there, and putting it lightly, it has been a rollercoaster of emotions.

Scientists previously believed Pluto to be a calm, inactive dwarf planet; just a mass of ice and frozen gases floating around the Solar System. But defying all these expectations, Pluto seems to be very geologically active, actually similar to Earth, (or rather, one of Neptune’s moons, since it has a large ice mantle).

The clues that point to this surprising conclusion are many. For one, there are areas with no signs of craters caused by asteroid collisions, which would be impossible unless these sections are relatively new, as they would be if they had been formed recently by geological activity. There are also fault lines and rift valleys, both characteristic features of tectonic movement.

However, scientists are still puzzled as to how these movements are brought about. In Earth, tectonic movements happen because of the melted rock in the core of the planet, but this is not possible in Pluto, so a popular theory suggests that since it is filled with radioactive material (like most astronomical bodies), this somehow produces enough energy to heat up the surface of Pluto and causes the movement of large amounts of ice that act as tectonic plates.

But don’t think this trend of unexpectedness stops at Pluto. Its largest moon, Charon, is not far behind. It also displays signs of being geologically active, as it has deep canyons and very smooth expanses.


Pluto sure is a sweetheart

Since many new areas in Pluto and Charon have been true wonders, scientists have decided to give them appropriate names. The most famous one, unofficially nicknamed ‘The Heart’ because it is heart-shaped, is now probably going to be known as Tombaugh Regio in honour of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto in 1930. Another feature is a plane made of ice, which shows troughs at regular intervals, and has been dubbed the Sputnik Planum, in honour of the first spaceship. The Norgay Mountains are named after the first Sherpa to climb Mount Everest, and are a range of 3300 meter-high mountains made entirely of frozen ice which behaves like rocks. Astronomers also seem to be huge fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as they have named a feature in Pluto ‘Balrog’, a monster from this series, and a dark region in the pole of Charon is being called Mordor.

The mission also offered an opportunity to accurately measure Pluto’s diameter for the first time. The results show that it is 2.370 km large, possibly the largest of the five recognized dwarf planets in the Solar System.

Although the official flyby has ended, New Horizons’ adventures are not over. All this baffling information it has sent us only represents about 2% of all the data it has collected, so we can still expect many surprises from this mission for about 16 months as the rest comes in. And after the visit to Pluto, it is going to fly to the Kuiper Belt, a zone beyond the planets full of small icy bodies that may contain some interesting information as to how the Solar System was formed.

Fossils on the Moon

the moon

The answer to the origin of life on Earth may actually not be on Earth

Although the Universe is 13.8 billion years old, life took a lot longer to develop. Estimates say that life ‘happened’ up to 17 million years ago somewhere in the Universe, but only spread through the Earth 3 million years ago. There are various theories as to how life developed on Earth specifically. Some think that the random collisions of molecules that give rise to life happened independently on Earth, since it had favourable conditions. Others think that this may have occurred someplace else, deep in the vastness of space, and that those small living creatures were transported to Earth via a meteorite.

At the moment, there is no way to confirm which of these theories is correct. It was thought that analysing fossil records could show whether any meteorite that arrived at the time life started actually contained living organisms. But Earth is an active planet, and its continuous geological activity has pretty much erased all evidence of it. But scientists have thought of an alternative.

If 17 million years ago there were meteorites containing life roaming around the universe colliding with planets like the Earth, they could have hit the Moon, since they are so close together. And the great thing about this possibility is that it is actually verifiable. The Moon has a much calmer tectonic history, since it currently does not contain any lava in its center to wreck fossil records. But at the time life is thought to have spread on Earth, the Moon was covered in lava, which is more helpful than you imagine. Several experiments in the past have shown that complex organic molecules that made up early life are able to withstand the high temperatures in the lava, and may have actually been protected from radiation by being buried deep inside the hot liquid.

So now we only need to go on a mining expedition to the Moon to find any fossils that may give us the next clue as to when and how life started in this wonderful Solar System of ours.