New data from the New Horizons space probe reveals that Pluto may not be a "dwarf planet" after all.
It’s been quite a year for Pluto since NASA’s New Horizons space probe flew past the outer rim of the solar system last July. According to a report from the Christian Science Monitor, the latest information sent back to Earth by the wayward probe suggests that the International Astronomical Union’s 2006 decision to reclassify Pluto as a “dwarf planet” may have been premature.
Information collected by the probe during its historic flyby in July 2015 offers new insights into the way Pluto interacts with solar winds. The finding is unlike anything astronomers have seen before, and could lead to an entirely new classification for the strange, icy world.
According to David J. McComas, the scientists overseeing the Solar Wind Around Pluto instrument on New Horizons, “The results are astonishing. We were fascinated and surprised. We’ve now visited all nine of the classical planets and examined all their solar wind interactions, and we’ve never seen anything like this.”
The sun emits solar wind, or charged particles at a speed of 100 million miles per hour. This “wind” blasts throughout the entire solar system and can have significant effects on the atmospheric conditions on other planets.
The discovery about Pluto centers on the way planets and comets interact with this solar wind. Typically, the flow of solar wind slows when it meets a comet in space, while the same flow is quickly diverted when it runs into a planet.
Before New Horizons’ flyby last summer, scientists believed Pluto behaved more like a comet when it came to solar wind. But the most recent data suggests otherwise – researchers have revealed that Pluto acts like a hybrid, exhibiting traits of both planets and comets.
“This is an intermediate interaction, a completely new type,” said Dr. McComas. “It’s not comet-like, and it’s not planet-like. It’s in-between.”
The discovery could lead to an entirely new classification of Pluto – the lonely world at the rim of the solar system that struggles to keep its identity.
A press release from the American Geophysical Union describing the details of the study can be found here.