Researchers have just realized that dwarf planet Pluto is emitting X-Rays. Not only is this really weird, but it also challenges our understanding of our solar system, since its something that shouldn’t be happening.
It has been over a year since the New Horizons probe gave us the first images of Pluto – the dwarf planet located on the outer edge of our solar system, but it seems that Pluto has a lot more for us than we ever imagined. The newest discovery is that the dwarf planet emits X-rays, something that should not happen considering its thin atmosphere and no magnetic field.
So, what’s going on Pluto?
Well, it all started when the New Horizons probe found that Pluto, apparently against all odds had a thin atmosphere composed of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. This caught the attention of Carey Lisse of the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University, and Scott Wolk of the Center for Astrophysics at the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute.
Both researchers wondered whether the existence of a ‘thin’ atmosphere could make the dwarf planet visible in an X-ray spectrum.
In theory, if high energy particles of the solar wind collide with the cold gas of Pluto’s atmosphere, the interaction -at an atomic level should create an emission of X-rays.
To investigate, Lisse andWolk focused the Chandra X-ray telescope towards Pluto and found to their surprise that the dwarf planet itself emits the radiation, but does so in an amount which turned out to be much higher than expected.
The finding was published in the journal Icarus.
So what’s so strange in Pluto emitting x-rays? It turns out that Pluto should not be emitting them. At least not in such quantities.
If Pluto had its own magnetosphere, the solar particles should cause auroras which would be visible in the X-Ray spectrum, but when New Horizons passed near the planet neither one thing nor the other was detected by the spacecraft.
“Before our observations, scientists thought it was highly unlikely that we’d detect X-rays from Pluto, causing a strong debate as to whether Chandra should observe it at all,” said team member Wolk, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.
To further complicate things, the form of solar X-rays have a certain temperature that does not match the one detected by scientists.
“[Solar x-rays] have a temperature we can measure, of a few million Kelvin,” Wolk said in an interview with Gizmodo. “That’s not what we saw. What we saw is literally only photons that appear to come from carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.”
Even though researchers are still unsure about what’s really going on at our solar system’s favorite planet, researchers have a couple of theories that may explain the mystery behind the X-Ray on Pluto.
The most plausible explanation is that the X-rays emitted by Pluto come from the exosphere.
According to Wolk: “Most of the atmosphere hangs very close to the surface. But above it, there’s this thin, tenuous layer, the exosphere.”
Researchers believe that it’s precisely that layer the appears to be getting shredded by the solar wind and emits x-rays in the process.
Researchers speculate that a similar stripping process cost our neighbouring planet Mars its atmosphere millions of years ago.
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