Pluto: Not Planet, Not Paltry

The heart-shaped Sputnik Planum.
Layers of haze in Pluto’s atmosphere.
Layers of haze in Pluto’s atmosphere.

Pluto may be a small world, only about 1,400 miles across, half as wide as the U.S., and one-sixth the size of Earth. But it’s no less complex for that. At minus 375 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s a very, very frozen world, but not a flat and featureless one.

It’s all about ice. On Earth, the only ice is frozen water. But on Pluto, even gases freeze solid: nitrogen, methane, carbon monoxide.

Pluto reminds me of Gethen, the snow-laden world, featured in Ursula Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness.” The people who live on the continent of Karhide have 62 names for “fallen snow.” Likewise, were we to live on Pluto, we’d have to have a catalog of words for its myriad ice textures.

A portrait, now emerging from photographs taken by New Horizons as it flew past the dwarf-planet on July 14, 2015, shows that it owns an impressive range of geological landforms: a vast icy plain in the shape of a “heart” called Sputnik Planum; a patterned terrain that has the texture of snakeskin; a soaring mountain.

Its left half is covered by mostly nitrogen snow; the right side is more methane ice.

During the daytime, it’d be only as bright as Earth at twilight. Looking up, you’d see a black sky (because of the thin atmosphere.) Shining brighter than anything else on it would be a disk the size of a quarter. That’d be the Sun.

There’d be a crepuscular glow all around, but you’d still be able to read a book. But surely, killing time would be a problem. A day would go on for 153 hours.

h/t: NYT and NASA

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