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Pluto’s atmosphere might be dying right before our eyes

Published Apr 29th, 2019 8:08PM EDT
pluto atmosphere
Image: NASA

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Pluto, the once-planet and now-dwarf-planet, is an incredibly hostile world as far as life is concerned. Pluto, which sits near the edges of the solar system, far from the Sun, is incredibly frigid. Its thin atmosphere, which consists mostly of nitrogen, has persisted despite the rock-bottom temperatures, but new research suggests that trend may changing, and Pluto’s atmosphere could completely collapse within years.

A massive research effort to study climate patterns on Pluto has yielded the shocking prediction in a new paper published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. The team suggests that Pluto’s entire atmosphere could vanish by 2030.

Studying a planetary body as distant as Pluto is no easy task, and learning the ebbs and flows of its atmosphere is even more difficult. Scientists were able to make their observations thanks to a phenomenon called occultation, which when a planet or other object passes in front of another, more distant object.

In this case, researchers closely observed Pluto as it passed in front of distant light sources such as stars. As Pluto passed in front of those far-away stars, their light shining through its atmosphere offered clues as to its status. Using this data, scientists were able to track a dramatic increase in Pluto’s atmospheric pressure and temperature.

Knowing that Pluto’s atmosphere is largely nitrogen, the researchers realized that plummeting temperatures are rapidly causing its collapse. During the planet’s winter, temperatures crawl low enough for the nitrogen to freeze, condensing and collecting on the surface as frost. Forecasting the trend into the near future, Pluto’s entire atmosphere appears poised to freeze and collapse over the next decade.

“The atmospheric pressure has tripled over the past three decades, but as the dwarf planet orbits, our modeling showed that most of the atmosphere would condense out to almost nothing left,” Andrew Cole, co-author of the research, said in a statement. “What our predictions show is that by 2030 the atmosphere is going to frost out and vanish around the whole planet.”