Winter is coming for Pluto as atmosphere predicted to freeze by 2030

Winter is coming (for Pluto, that is): Scientists say the dwarf planet’s atmosphere will freeze over and COLLAPSE by 2030 as decades-long season gets underway in the north

  • Pluto orbits the sun every 248 years, and seasons can last more than a century
  • It’s is moving toward point furthest from sun and is experiencing northern winter
  • This will cause Pluto’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere to freeze over and condense
  • Scientists estimate it will collapse and almost completely ‘vanish’ by 2030

In just a matter of years, Pluto’s atmosphere may freeze over and ‘vanish.’

A 28-year study has found that the frigid temperatures experienced as Pluto moves farther from the sun, which coincides with its northern hemisphere winter, will cause pressure to build in its nitrogen-rich atmosphere until it ultimately collapses.

The international team of scientists behind the work estimates pressure has already tripled in the last three decades alone, suggesting it will condense ‘to almost nothing’ by 2030.

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Pluto’s atmosphere is made primarily of nitrogen, with traces of methane and carbon monoxide, and temperatures can drop to as low as -238 degrees Celsius. By 2030, scientists estimate its atmosphere will freeze over and condense 

Pluto sits farther from the sun than any other planet (or dwarf planet) in the solar system, and completes its elongated orbit every 248 years. As a result, seasons on Pluto last upwards of a century.

In the study, researchers tracked changes in Pluto’s lower atmosphere from 1988 to 2016, revealing how pressure changes in relation to its proximity to the sun.

Pluto reached perihelion – the closest point to the sun – back in 1990 and now continues to move to the farthest point in its orbit. 

All the while, its northern hemisphere remains pointed away from the sun, leaving the region in a long, frigid winter. 

‘What the study found was when Pluto is farthest away from the sun, and during its winter in the Northern Hemisphere, nitrogen freezes out of the atmosphere,’ said Associate Professor Andrew Cole from the University of Tasmania’s School of Natural Sciences.

‘The atmospheric pressure has tripled over the past three decades, but as the planet orbits, our modelling showed that most of the atmosphere would condense out to almost nothing left.

‘What our predictions show is that by 2030 the atmosphere is going to frost out and vanish around the whole planet.’

Pluto’s atmosphere is made primarily of nitrogen, with traces of methane and carbon monoxide, and temperatures can drop to as low as -238 degrees Celsius.

In just a matter of years, Pluto’s atmosphere may freeze over and ‘vanish.’ Artist’s impression

Researchers used observations from the 1.3 metre-Harlingten telescope at the Greenhill Observatory along with data from the New Horizons’ 2015 flyby of Pluto to gain insight on its atmosphere’s density, pressure, and temperature.

According to the team, the seasonal change will be so dramatic, it may even be visible to observers on Earth.

‘If it does freeze over, Pluto may appear brighter in the sky due to sunlight reflecting,’ Dr Cole said.

‘The striking red terrain seen in the New Horizons images could fade away if they are snowed under with nitrogen frost,’ the researcher adds.

‘This research has been crucial in furthering our understanding of Pluto and testing what we know about atmospheres, ices, and climate at extreme conditions.’

PLUTO’S HYDROCARBON HAZE 

Researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) recently examined measurements of Pluto’s surface temperature taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015, revealing extensive layers of atmospheric haze.

This results from chemical reactions in the upper atmosphere, where ultraviolet radiation from the sun ionises nitrogen and methane.

These elements react to form tiny hydrocarbon particles tens of nanometres in diameter.

As these tiny particles sink down through the atmosphere, they stick together.

This forms aggregates that grow larger as they descend, eventually settling onto the surface.

The cooling mechanism involves the absorption of heat by the haze particles.

They then emit infrared radiation, cooling the atmosphere by radiating energy into space.

The result is an atmospheric temperature of about 70 Kelvin (-203°C / 333°F), instead of the predicted 100 Kelvin (-173°C / -280°F).

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