New Moon Refuels the Pluto Debate


Image from telegraph.co.uk

The discovery of a fifth moon orbiting around Pluto gives hope to some in the battle to regain this dwarf planet’s once planetary status.

Now able to brag five identified satellites, Pluto has more moons than any of the inner four planets combined.  The newly discovered moon, temporarily named P5, was discovered while were attempting to plot a safe, particle-free, course for the an incoming spacecraft, The spacecraft, New Horizons, is expected to be whizzing by and taking pictures of the dwarf planet in 2015.  New Horizons took off on January 16, 2006 with its mission to be the first spacecraft to fly by Pluto and its moons and possibly through the Kuiper Belt.  The discovery of another new moon last year, still temporarily named P4, started to worry scientists about small moons shredding debris and creating dust rings that could potentially devastate this $700-millon mission.  Since New Horizon will be traveling around 14 km/s a particle as small as 1-millimeter has the potential to put it, and the mission, permanently out of commission.

That is why scientists have been spotting ahead for the spacecraft by using images from the Hubble telescope.  P5 was discovered on Saturday, July 7, and is incredibly faint when compared to Pluto, about 1/1,000,000 as bright.  Its dimness suggests that its diameter is only 10-25 kilometers long, or about as an average bike path (15.5 miles at the longest estimate).  Considering how small it is, coupled with how far away it is, it’s pretty incredible that Hubble was even able to see it.

The large amount of satellites is giving some scientists kindling to refuel the Pluto debate, which was removed from its planetary status in the August of 2006.  The belief is that anything that has acquired so many satellites has to be a planet.  The theory seems to hold little water though, and it seems as though Pluto has little chance at being reinstated as the ninth planet of solar system.

P5 does however give interesting insights on Pluto’s past.  The large number of moons surrounding Pluto suggests that, a long time ago, Pluto may have been impacted by something quite large, causing a lot of debris to dislodge from its surface and orbit around the remnants of the planet.  After billions of year of circling the planet this debris has condensed in the form of many moons.

If this theory were supported, Pluto would have been much bigger before the impact.  A Pluto of this size would certainly gain acceptance as the ninth planet in out solar system.  Alas, devastation struck.  Once; billions of years ago when its size was greatly diminished, and again; in 2006, when scientists remorselessly removed the little guy from list of planets in the solar system—a coveted title now only held by eight behemoths (although Mercury is only twice the size of Pluto).  Whatever the future holds for this chunk of mass millions of miles away, I hope it sees brighter days.

Good luck, Pluto, you will be the ninth planet in my solar system, always and forever.

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