For decades researchers have been discussing how to classify Pluto. Is it a planet? Is it a dwarf planet? Or is it something completely different?
Now, scientists at the Southwest Research Institute suspect it could fall into the third category. As Neel V. Patel reports for Popular Science, Pluto could consist of billions of comets, all of which were mixed together. The researchers present their ideas in a study published in the journal Icarus .
Scientists had long believed that the dwarf planet Pluto was shaped like planets: they begin as whirling dust that gradually contracts becomes heaviness. But with the realization that Pluto was a Kuiper Belt dwarf planet, researchers began to speculate about the origins of the icy world.
In recent decades, scientists have thrown around the idea that Pluto could be a giant comet. But they had no way to test this speculation. That is, until the summer of 201
The researchers turned to Sputnik Planitia, the western lobe of the huge heart-shaped ice surface on Pluto's side. Explaining the study and researchers at the Southwest Research Institute, Patel said, researchers used New Horizons data on this icy expanse to estimate the amount of nitrogen on Pluto and the amount released from its atmosphere.
The researchers then collected data collected from the Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency. The plant circled comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko for two years before deliberately crashing into its surface in 2016.
[W] We used Rosetta's nitrogen abundance and scaled it to the bulk of Pluto, "Glein says, and both analyzes yield surprisingly similar estimates.
Glein explains the conclusions in a statement:" We found a startling one Correspondence between the estimated amount of nitrogen in the [Sputnik Planitia] glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto were formed by the agglomeration of about one billion comets or other objects of the Kuiper belt that resemble 67P in their chemical composition Rosetta explored the comet. "
The conclusions are far from definitive, but suggest that the comet idea is a fascinating possibility, but there are still some reservations: first, researchers are not sure if the comet 67P has an average comet composition, For another, New Horizons only collected information about Pluto at some point in time, so nitrogen numbers could have changed in the last billion years. As Mike Walls writes for Space.com it also still has the possibility that Pluto was "made of cold ice with a chemical composition closer to the sun."
A major challenge to the theory is the low level of carbon monoxide on the dwarf planet – a find that contradicts the situation of most comets, but that does not exclude the idea of the comet: carbon monoxide kan n be buried deep under the glacier or even trapped in an underground ocean.
Despite these uncertainties, Caltech's planetary scientist James Tuttle Keane, who is not told of the study Gizmodo's George Dvorsky's study, still adds to the important conversation about how the solar system formed.
"This paper is an exciting example of science that can be achieved by collecting data from various international planetary missions," he says. "There is a long debate about the role and importance of comets in the construction of planets … This study represents a new piece of this long-standing puzzle."
As Patel reports, there is only one way to confirm the new theory: land on Pluto to gather more data.
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