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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Compare the orbital characteristics of Pluto with those of the planets
  • Describe information about Pluto’s surface deduced from the New Horizons images
  • Note some distinguishing characteristics of Pluto’s large moon Charon

Pluto is not a moon, but we discuss it here because its size and composition are similar to many moons in the outer solar system. Our understanding of Pluto (and its large moon Charon ) have changed dramatically as a result of the New Horizons flyby in 2015.

Is pluto a planet?

Pluto was discovered through a careful, systematic search, unlike Neptune , whose position was calculated from gravitational theory. Nevertheless, the history of the search for Pluto began with indications that Uranus had slight departures from its predicted orbit, departures that could be due to the gravitation of an undiscovered “Planet X.” Early in the twentieth century, several astronomers, most notably Percival Lowell , then at the peak of his fame as an advocate of intelligent life on Mars, became interested in searching for this ninth planet.

Lowell and his contemporaries based their calculations primarily on tiny unexplained irregularities in the motion of Uranus. Lowell’s computations indicated two possible locations for a perturbing Planet X; the more likely of the two was in the constellation Gemini. He predicted a mass for the planet intermediate between the masses of Earth and Neptune (his calculations gave about 6 Earth masses). Other astronomers, however, obtained other solutions from the tiny orbital irregularities, even including one model that indicated two planets beyond Neptune.

At his Arizona observatory, Lowell searched without success for the unknown planet from 1906 until his death in 1916, and the search was not renewed until 1929. In February 1930, a young observing assistant named Clyde Tombaugh (see the Clyde Tombaugh: From the Farm to Fame feature box), comparing photographs he made on January 23 and 29 of that year, found a faint object whose motion appeared to be about right for a planet far beyond the orbit of Neptune ( [link] ). The new planet was named for Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, who dwelt in remote darkness, just like the new planet. The choice of this name, among hundreds suggested, was helped by the fact that the first two letters were Percival Lowell’s initials.

Pluto’s motion.

An image demonstrating the motion of Pluto. On the left Pluto’s location in the night sky on January 23, and on the right Pluto’s location has moved on January 29.
Portions of the two photographs by which Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. The left one was taken on January 23 and the right on January 29. Note that Pluto, indicated by an arrow, has moved among the stars during those six nights. If we hadn’t put an arrow next to it, though, you probably would never have spotted the dot that moved. (credit: modification of work by the Lowell Observatory Archives)

Although the discovery of Pluto appeared initially to be a vindication of gravitational theory similar to the earlier triumph of Adams and Le Verrier in predicting the position of Neptune, we now know that Lowell’s calculations were wrong. When its mass and size were finally measured, it was found that Pluto could not possibly have exerted any measurable pull on either Uranus or Neptune. Astronomers are now convinced that the reported small anomalies in the motions of Uranus are not, and never were, real.

Questions & Answers

which planet orbits the closest?
Alastair Reply
What is the angle between Earth's equator and the Celestial equator? In the drawing they seem pretty similar. Thank you for this study resource.
Chuck Reply
Describe the spectrum of each of the following: starlight reflected by dust, a star behind invisible interstellar gas, and an emission nebula
shakila Reply
If the Oort cloud contains 1012 comets, and ten new comets are discovered coming close to the Sun each year, what percentage of the comets have been “used up” since the beginning of the solar system?
Day Reply
what is spectral type of sun
Akshat Reply
what everyone asking here? and who answers for them?
Shashi Reply
highest frequency wavelengh
Kathy Reply
may I know which Kingdom shows largest diversity
Arpita Reply
or students should post tough likely questions
Adepitan Reply
for example questions on demand functions and etc
Adepitan Reply
are there no ways we can get tough questions to answer
Adepitan Reply
What do you mean?
Amman Reply
excellent book bro.... keep it up.... if I find any query i will ask u.... thanks
rao Reply
Hi! I'm a bit confused, what is this
Sizakele Reply
They hsve new set of questions every time they test us. i do revision with the tutorials they give us answer extra questions from their moodle site but every time i write exams there will be few not even 10% of the questions are they. most of the time i guess. They give us three lectures who do not
Phumza Reply

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Source:  OpenStax, Astronomy. OpenStax CNX. Apr 12, 2017 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11992/1.13
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