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Pluto Pluto symbol.svg
Pluto in True Color - High-Res.jpg
Northern hemisphere of Pluto in true color [lower-alpha 1]
Discovered by Clyde W. Tombaugh
Discovery dateFebruary 18, 1930
MPC designation (134340) Pluto
Pronunciation /ˈplt/ ( Loudspeaker.svg listen )
Named after
Adjectives Plutonian
Orbital characteristics [1] [lower-alpha 2]
Epoch J2000
Earliest precovery dateAugust 20, 1909
  • 49.305  AU
  • (7.37593 billion km)
  • February 2114
  • 29.658 AU
  • (4.43682 billion km) [2]
  • (September 5, 1989) [3]
  • 39.48 AU
  • (5.90638 billion km)
Eccentricity 0.2488
366.73 days [2]
Average orbital speed
4.67 km/s [2]
14.53  deg
  • 17.16°
  • (11.88° to Sun's equator)
Known satellites 5
Physical characteristics
Mean radius
Flattening <1% [6]
Mean density
1.854±0.006 g/cm3 [4] [6]
1.212 km/s [lower-alpha 6]
Sidereal rotation period
  • 6.387230 d
  • 6 d, 9 h, 17 m, 36 s
Equatorial rotation velocity
47.18 km/h
122.53° (to orbit) [2]
North pole right ascension
132.993° [7]
North pole declination
−6.163° [7]
Albedo 0.49 to 0.66 (geometric, varies by 35%) [2] [8]
Surface temp. minmeanmax
Kelvin 33 K44 K (−229 °C)55 K
13.65 [2] to 16.3 [9]
(mean is 15.1) [2]
−0.7 [10]
0.06″ to 0.11″ [2] [lower-alpha 7]
Surface pressure
1.0 Pa (2015) [6] [11]
Composition by volume Nitrogen, methane, carbon monoxide [12]
Mosaic of best-resolution images of Pluto from different angles NH-Pluto-Day1-TenImages-20150714-20151120.jpg
Mosaic of best-resolution images of Pluto from different angles

Pluto (minor planet designation: 134340 Pluto) is a dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt, a ring of bodies beyond Neptune. It was the first Kuiper belt object to be discovered and is the largest known plutoid (or ice dwarf).

A formal minor planet designation is, in its final form, a number–name combination given to a minor planet. Such designation always features a leading number assigned to a body once its orbital path is sufficiently secured. The formal designation is based on the minor planet's provisional designation, which was previously assigned automatically when it had been observed for the first time. Later on, the provisional part of the formal designation may be replaced with a name. Both formal and provisional designations are overseen by the Minor Planet Center (MPC), a branch of the International Astronomical Union.

Dwarf planet planetary-mass object

A dwarf planet is a planetary-mass object that is neither a true planet nor a natural satellite. That is, it is in direct orbit of a star, and is massive enough for its gravity to compress it into a hydrostatically equilibrious shape, but has not cleared the neighborhood of other material around its orbit.

Kuiper belt area of the Solar System beyond the planets comprising small bodies

The Kuiper belt, occasionally called the Edgeworth–Kuiper belt, is a circumstellar disc in the outer Solar System, extending from the orbit of Neptune to approximately 50 AU from the Sun. It is similar to the asteroid belt, but is far larger—20 times as wide and 20 to 200 times as massive. Like the asteroid belt, it consists mainly of small bodies or remnants from when the Solar System formed. While many asteroids are composed primarily of rock and metal, most Kuiper belt objects are composed largely of frozen volatiles, such as methane, ammonia and water. The Kuiper belt is home to three officially recognized dwarf planets: Pluto, Haumea and Makemake. Some of the Solar System's moons, such as Neptune's Triton and Saturn's Phoebe, may have originated in the region.


Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and was originally considered to be the ninth planet from the Sun. After 1992, its status as a planet was questioned following the discovery of several objects of similar size in the Kuiper belt. In 2005, Eris, a dwarf planet in the scattered disc which is 27% more massive than Pluto, was discovered. This led the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to define the term "planet" formally in 2006, during their 26th General Assembly. That definition excluded Pluto and reclassified it as a dwarf planet.

Clyde Tombaugh American astronomer, discoverer of Pluto (1906-1997)

Clyde William Tombaugh was an American astronomer. He discovered Pluto in 1930, the first object to be discovered in what would later be identified as the Kuiper belt. At the time of discovery, Pluto was considered a planet but was later controversially reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006. Tombaugh also discovered many asteroids. He also called for the serious scientific research of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.

Planets beyond Neptune Any Solar System planet that might exist beyond Neptune

Following the discovery of the planet Neptune in 1846, there was considerable speculation that another planet might exist beyond its orbit. The search began in the mid-19th century and continued at the start of the 20th with Percival Lowell's quest for Planet X. Lowell proposed the Planet X hypothesis to explain apparent discrepancies in the orbits of the giant planets, particularly Uranus and Neptune, speculating that the gravity of a large unseen ninth planet could have perturbed Uranus enough to account for the irregularities.

Eris (dwarf planet) dwarf planet in the Solar System

Eris is the most massive and second-largest dwarf planet known in the Solar System. Eris was discovered in January 2005 by a Palomar Observatory-based team led by Mike Brown, and its discovery was verified later that year. In September 2006 it was named after Eris, the Greek goddess of strife and discord. Eris is the ninth most massive object directly orbiting the Sun, and the 16th most massive overall, because seven moons are more massive than all known dwarf planets. It is also the largest which has not yet been visited by a spacecraft. Eris was measured to be 2,326 ± 12 kilometers (1,445.3 ± 7.5 mi) in diameter. Eris's mass is about 0.27% of the Earth mass, about 27% more than dwarf planet Pluto, although Pluto is slightly larger by volume.

Pluto is the largest and second-most-massive (after Eris) known dwarf planet in the Solar System, and the ninth-largest and tenth-most-massive known object directly orbiting the Sun. It is the largest known trans-Neptunian object by volume but is less massive than Eris. Like other Kuiper belt objects, Pluto is primarily made of ice and rock and is relatively small—about one-sixth the mass of the Moon and one-third its volume. It has a moderately eccentric and inclined orbit during which it ranges from 30 to 49  astronomical units or AU (4.4–7.4 billion km) from the Sun. This means that Pluto periodically comes closer to the Sun than Neptune, but a stable orbital resonance with Neptune prevents them from colliding. Light from the Sun takes about 5.5 hours to reach Pluto at its average distance (39.5 AU).

Solar System Planetary system of the Sun

The Solar System is the gravitationally bound planetary system of the Sun and the objects that orbit it, either directly or indirectly. Of the objects that orbit the Sun directly, the largest are the eight planets, with the remainder being smaller objects, such as the five dwarf planets and small Solar System bodies. Of the objects that orbit the Sun indirectly—the moons—two are larger than the smallest planet, Mercury.

Sun Star at the centre of the Solar System

The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is a nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma, with internal convective motion that generates a magnetic field via a dynamo process. It is by far the most important source of energy for life on Earth. Its diameter is about 1.39 million kilometers, or 109 times that of Earth, and its mass is about 330,000 times that of Earth. It accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. Roughly three quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen (~73%); the rest is mostly helium (~25%), with much smaller quantities of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron.

Moon Earths natural satellite

The Moon is an astronomical body that orbits planet Earth and is Earth's only permanent natural satellite. It is the fifth-largest natural satellite in the Solar System, and the largest among planetary satellites relative to the size of the planet that it orbits. The Moon is after Jupiter's satellite Io the second-densest satellite in the Solar System among those whose densities are known.

Pluto has five known moons: Charon (the largest, with a diameter just over half that of Pluto), Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Pluto and Charon are sometimes considered a binary system because the barycenter of their orbits does not lie within either body.

Moons of Pluto natural satellites orbiting Pluto

The dwarf planet Pluto has five moons down to a detection limit of about 1 km in diameter. In order of distance from Pluto, they are Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Charon, the largest of the five moons, is mutually tidally locked with Pluto, and is massive enough that Pluto–Charon is sometimes considered a double dwarf planet.

Charon (moon) largest natural satellite of the dwarf planet Pluto

Charon, also known as (134340) Pluto I, is the largest of the five known natural satellites of the dwarf planet Pluto. It has a mean radius of 606 km (377 mi). It was discovered in 1978 at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., using photographic plates taken at the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station (NOFS).

Styx (moon) natural satellite orbiting Pluto

Styx is a small natural satellite of Pluto whose discovery was announced on 11 July 2012. It was imaged along with Pluto and Pluto's other moons by the New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015. A single image was returned.

The New Horizons spacecraft performed a flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015, becoming the first ever spacecraft to do so. During its brief flyby, New Horizons made detailed measurements and observations of Pluto and its moons. In September 2016, astronomers announced that the reddish-brown cap of the north pole of Charon is composed of tholins, organic macromolecules that may be ingredients for the emergence of life, and produced from methane, nitrogen and other gases released from the atmosphere of Pluto and transferred about 19,000 km (12,000 mi) to the orbiting moon.

<i>New Horizons</i> First mission of the New Frontiers program; flyby reconnaisance of the dwarf planet Pluto

New Horizons is an interplanetary space probe that was launched as a part of NASA's New Frontiers program. Engineered by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), with a team led by S. Alan Stern, the spacecraft was launched in 2006 with the primary mission to perform a flyby study of the Pluto system in 2015, and a secondary mission to fly by and study one or more other Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) in the decade to follow, which as of 2019 includes 2014 MU69. It is the fifth space probe to achieve the escape velocity needed to leave the Solar System.

Planetary flyby Sending a space probe past a planet or dwarf planet

A planetary flyby is the act of sending a space probe past a planet or a dwarf planet close enough to record scientific data. This is a subset of the overall concept of a flyby in spaceflight.

Tholins are a wide variety of organic compounds formed by solar ultraviolet irradiation or cosmic rays from simple carbon-containing compounds such as carbon dioxide, methane or ethane, often in combination with nitrogen or water. Tholins are disordered polymer-like materials made of repeating chains of linked subunits and complex combinations of functional groups. Tholins do not form naturally on modern-day Earth, but they are found in great abundance on the surface of icy bodies in the outer Solar System, and as reddish aerosols in the atmosphere of outer Solar System planets and moons.



Discovery photographs of Pluto Pluto discovery plates.png
Discovery photographs of Pluto
Clyde Tombaugh, in Kansas Clyde W. Tombaugh.jpeg
Clyde Tombaugh, in Kansas

In the 1840s, Urbain Le Verrier used Newtonian mechanics to predict the position of the then-undiscovered planet Neptune after analyzing perturbations in the orbit of Uranus. [13] Subsequent observations of Neptune in the late 19th century led astronomers to speculate that Uranus's orbit was being disturbed by another planet besides Neptune.

Urbain Le Verrier French astronomer

Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier FRS (FOR) HFRSE was a French astronomer and mathematician who specialized in celestial mechanics and is best known for predicting the existence and position of Neptune using only mathematics. The calculations were made to explain discrepancies with Uranus's orbit and the laws of Kepler and Newton. Le Verrier sent the coordinates to Johann Gottfried Galle in Berlin, asking him to verify. Galle found Neptune in the same night he received Le Verrier's letter, within 1° of the predicted position. The discovery of Neptune is widely regarded as a dramatic validation of celestial mechanics, and is one of the most remarkable moments of 19th-century science.

Classical mechanics sub-field of mechanics, which is concerned with the set of physical laws describing the motion of bodies under the action of a system of forces

Classical mechanics describes the motion of macroscopic objects, from projectiles to parts of machinery, and astronomical objects, such as spacecraft, planets, stars and galaxies.

Neptune Eighth and farthest planet from the Sun in the Solar System

Neptune is the eighth and farthest known planet from the Sun in the Solar System. In the Solar System, it is the fourth-largest planet by diameter, the third-most-massive planet, and the densest giant planet. Neptune is 17 times the mass of Earth, slightly more massive than its near-twin Uranus. Neptune is denser and physically smaller than Uranus because its greater mass causes more gravitational compression of its atmosphere. Neptune orbits the Sun once every 164.8 years at an average distance of 30.1 AU (4.5 billion km). It is named after the Roman god of the sea and has the astronomical symbol ♆, a stylised version of the god Neptune's trident.

In 1906, Percival Lowell—a wealthy Bostonian who had founded Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1894—started an extensive project in search of a possible ninth planet, which he termed "Planet X". [14] By 1909, Lowell and William H. Pickering had suggested several possible celestial coordinates for such a planet. [15] Lowell and his observatory conducted his search until his death in 1916, but to no avail. Unknown to Lowell, his surveys had captured two faint images of Pluto on March 19 and April 7, 1915, but they were not recognized for what they were. [15] [16] There are fourteen other known precovery observations, with the earliest made by the Yerkes Observatory on August 20, 1909. [17]

Percival's widow, Constance Lowell, entered into a ten-year legal battle with the Lowell Observatory over her husband's legacy, and the search for Planet X did not resume until 1929. [18] Vesto Melvin Slipher, the observatory director, gave the job of locating Planet X to 23-year-old Clyde Tombaugh, who had just arrived at the observatory after Slipher had been impressed by a sample of his astronomical drawings. [18]

Tombaugh's task was to systematically image the night sky in pairs of photographs, then examine each pair and determine whether any objects had shifted position. Using a blink comparator, he rapidly shifted back and forth between views of each of the plates to create the illusion of movement of any objects that had changed position or appearance between photographs. On February 18, 1930, after nearly a year of searching, Tombaugh discovered a possible moving object on photographic plates taken on January 23 and 29. A lesser-quality photograph taken on January 21 helped confirm the movement. [19] After the observatory obtained further confirmatory photographs, news of the discovery was telegraphed to the Harvard College Observatory on March 13, 1930. [15] Pluto has yet to complete a full orbit of the Sun since its discovery because one Plutonian year is 247.68 years long. [20]


The discovery made headlines around the globe. [21] Lowell Observatory, which had the right to name the new object, received more than 1,000 suggestions from all over the world, ranging from Atlas to Zymal. [22] Tombaugh urged Slipher to suggest a name for the new object quickly before someone else did. [22] Constance Lowell proposed Zeus , then Percival and finally Constance. These suggestions were disregarded. [23]

The name Pluto, after the god of the underworld, was proposed by Venetia Burney (1918–2009), an eleven-year-old schoolgirl in Oxford, England, who was interested in classical mythology. [24] She suggested it in a conversation with her grandfather Falconer Madan, a former librarian at the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library, who passed the name to astronomy professor Herbert Hall Turner, who cabled it to colleagues in the United States. [24]

Each member of the Lowell Observatory was allowed to vote on a short-list of three potential names: Minerva (which was already the name for an asteroid), Cronus (which had lost reputation through being proposed by the unpopular astronomer Thomas Jefferson Jackson See), and Pluto. Pluto received every vote. [25] The name was announced on May 1, 1930. [24] [26] Upon the announcement, Madan gave Venetia £5 (equivalent to 300 GBP, or 450 USD in 2014) [27] as a reward. [24]

The final choice of name was helped in part by the fact that the first two letters of Pluto are the initials of Percival Lowell. Pluto's astronomical symbol ( Pluto symbol.svg , Unicode U+2647, ♇) was then created as a monogram constructed from the letters "PL". [28] Pluto's astrological symbol resembles that of Neptune ( Neptune symbol.svg ), but has a circle in place of the middle prong of the trident ( Pluto's astrological symbol.svg ).

The name was soon embraced by wider culture. In 1930, Walt Disney was apparently inspired by it when he introduced for Mickey Mouse a canine companion named Pluto, although Disney animator Ben Sharpsteen could not confirm why the name was given. [29] In 1941, Glenn T. Seaborg named the newly created element plutonium after Pluto, in keeping with the tradition of naming elements after newly discovered planets, following uranium, which was named after Uranus, and neptunium, which was named after Neptune. [30]

Most languages use the name "Pluto" in various transliterations. [lower-alpha 8] In Japanese, Houei Nojiri suggested the translation Meiōsei(冥王星, "Star of the King (God) of the Underworld"), and this was borrowed into Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese (which instead uses "Sao Diêm Vương", which was derived from the Chinese term 閻王 (Yánwáng), as "minh" is a homophone for the Sino-Vietnamese words for "dark" (冥) and "bright" (明)). [31] [32] [33] Some Indian languages use the name Pluto, but others, such as Hindi, use the name of Yama , the God of Death in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. [32] Polynesian languages also tend to use the indigenous god of the underworld, as in Māori Whiro . [32]

Planet X disproved

Once Pluto was found, its faintness and lack of a resolvable disc cast doubt on the idea that it was Lowell's Planet X. [14] Estimates of Pluto's mass were revised downward throughout the 20th century. [34]

Mass estimates for Pluto
YearMassEstimate by
19157 Earth Lowell (prediction for Planet X) [14]
19311 Earth Nicholson & Mayall [35] [36] [37]
19480.1 (1/10) Earth Kuiper [38]
19760.01 (1/100) Earth Cruikshank, Pilcher, & Morrison [39]
19780.0015 (1/650) Earth Christy & Harrington [40]
20060.00218 (1/459) Earth Buie et al. [41]

Astronomers initially calculated its mass based on its presumed effect on Neptune and Uranus. In 1931, Pluto was calculated to be roughly the mass of Earth, with further calculations in 1948 bringing the mass down to roughly that of Mars. [36] [38] In 1976, Dale Cruikshank, Carl Pilcher and David Morrison of the University of Hawaii calculated Pluto's albedo for the first time, finding that it matched that for methane ice; this meant Pluto had to be exceptionally luminous for its size and therefore could not be more than 1 percent the mass of Earth. [39] (Pluto's albedo is 1.4–1.9 times that of Earth. [2] )

In 1978, the discovery of Pluto's moon Charon allowed the measurement of Pluto's mass for the first time: roughly 0.2% that of Earth, and far too small to account for the discrepancies in the orbit of Uranus. Subsequent searches for an alternative Planet X, notably by Robert Sutton Harrington, [42] failed. In 1992, Myles Standish used data from Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune in 1989, which had revised the estimates of Neptune's mass downward by 0.5%—an amount comparable to the mass of Mars—to recalculate its gravitational effect on Uranus. With the new figures added in, the discrepancies, and with them the need for a Planet X, vanished. [43] Today, the majority of scientists agree that Planet X, as Lowell defined it, does not exist. [44] Lowell had made a prediction of Planet X's orbit and position in 1915 that was fairly close to Pluto's actual orbit and its position at that time; Ernest W. Brown concluded soon after Pluto's discovery that this was a coincidence, [45] a view still held today. [43]


From 1992 onward, many bodies were discovered orbiting in the same volume as Pluto, showing that Pluto is part of a population of objects called the Kuiper belt. This made its official status as a planet controversial, with many questioning whether Pluto should be considered together with or separately from its surrounding population. Museum and planetarium directors occasionally created controversy by omitting Pluto from planetary models of the Solar System. The Hayden Planetarium reopened—in February 2000, after renovation—with a model of only eight planets, which made headlines almost a year later. [46]

As objects increasingly closer in size to Pluto were discovered in the region, it was argued that Pluto should be reclassified as one of the Kuiper belt objects, just as Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta lost their planet status after the discovery of many other asteroids. On July 29, 2005, astronomers at Caltech announced the discovery of a new trans-Neptunian object, Eris, which was substantially more massive than Pluto and the most massive object discovered in the Solar System since Triton in 1846. Its discoverers and the press initially called it the tenth planet, although there was no official consensus at the time on whether to call it a planet. [47] Others in the astronomical community considered the discovery the strongest argument for reclassifying Pluto as a minor planet. [48]

IAU classification

The debate came to a head in August 2006, with an IAU resolution that created an official definition for the term "planet". According to this resolution, there are three conditions for an object in the Solar System to be considered a planet:

  1. The object must be in orbit around the Sun.
  2. The object must be massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity. More specifically, its own gravity should pull it into a shape defined by hydrostatic equilibrium.
  3. It must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. [49] [50]

Pluto fails to meet the third condition. [51] Its mass is substantially less than the combined mass of the other objects in its orbit: 0.07 times, in contrast to Earth, which is 1.7 million times the remaining mass in its orbit (excluding the moon). [52] [50] The IAU further decided that bodies that, like Pluto, meet criteria 1 and 2, but do not meet criterion 3 would be called dwarf planets. In September 2006, the IAU included Pluto, and Eris and its moon Dysnomia, in their Minor Planet Catalogue, giving them the official minor planet designations "(134340) Pluto", "(136199) Eris", and "(136199) Eris I Dysnomia". [53] Had Pluto been included upon its discovery in 1930, it would have likely been designated 1164, following 1163 Saga, which was discovered a month earlier. [54]

There has been some resistance within the astronomical community toward the reclassification. [55] [56] [57] Alan Stern, principal investigator with NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, derided the IAU resolution, stating that "the definition stinks, for technical reasons". [58] Stern contended that, by the terms of the new definition, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune, all of which share their orbits with asteroids, would be excluded. [59] He argued that all big spherical moons, including the Moon, should likewise be considered planets. [60] He also stated that because less than five percent of astronomers voted for it, the decision was not representative of the entire astronomical community. [59] Marc W. Buie, then at the Lowell Observatory petitioned against the definition. [61] Others have supported the IAU. Mike Brown, the astronomer who discovered Eris, said "through this whole crazy circus-like procedure, somehow the right answer was stumbled on. It's been a long time coming. Science is self-correcting eventually, even when strong emotions are involved." [62]

Public reception to the IAU decision was mixed. Many accepted the reclassification, but some sought to overturn the decision with online petitions urging the IAU to consider reinstatement. A resolution introduced by some members of the California State Assembly facetiously called the IAU decision a "scientific heresy". [63] The New Mexico House of Representatives passed a resolution in honor of Tombaugh, a longtime resident of that state, that declared that Pluto will always be considered a planet while in New Mexican skies and that March 13, 2007, was Pluto Planet Day. [64] [65] The Illinois Senate passed a similar resolution in 2009, on the basis that Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, was born in Illinois. The resolution asserted that Pluto was "unfairly downgraded to a 'dwarf' planet" by the IAU." [66] Some members of the public have also rejected the change, citing the disagreement within the scientific community on the issue, or for sentimental reasons, maintaining that they have always known Pluto as a planet and will continue to do so regardless of the IAU decision. [67]

In 2006, in its 17th annual words-of-the-year vote, the American Dialect Society voted plutoed as the word of the year. To "pluto" is to "demote or devalue someone or something". [68]

Researchers on both sides of the debate gathered in August 2008, at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory for a conference that included back-to-back talks on the current IAU definition of a planet. [69] Entitled "The Great Planet Debate", [70] the conference published a post-conference press release indicating that scientists could not come to a consensus about the definition of planet. [71] In June 2008, the IAU had announced in a press release that the term "plutoid" would henceforth be used to refer to Pluto and other objects that have an orbital semi-major axis greater than that of Neptune and enough mass to be of near-spherical shape. [72] [73] [74]


Pluto skypath 1900-2050.png
Pluto was discovered in 1930 near the star δ Geminorum, and merely coincidentally crossing the ecliptic at this time of discovery. Pluto moves about 7 degrees east per decade with small apparent retrograde motion as seen from Earth. Pluto was closer to the Sun than Neptune between 1979 and 1999.
Animation of Pluto's orbit from 1900 to 2100
Sun *    Saturn *    Uranus *    Neptune *    Pluto Animation of Pluto orbit.gif
Animation of Pluto's orbit from 1900 to 2100
   Sun ·   Saturn ·   Uranus ·   Neptune ·   Pluto

Pluto's orbital period is currently about 248 years. Its orbital characteristics are substantially different from those of the planets, which follow nearly circular orbits around the Sun close to a flat reference plane called the ecliptic. In contrast, Pluto's orbit is moderately inclined relative to the ecliptic (over 17°) and moderately eccentric (elliptical). This eccentricity means a small region of Pluto's orbit lies closer to the Sun than Neptune's. The Pluto–Charon barycenter came to perihelion on September 5, 1989, [3] [lower-alpha 9] and was last closer to the Sun than Neptune between February 7, 1979, and February 11, 1999. [75]

In the long term, Pluto's orbit is chaotic. Computer simulations can be used to predict its position for several million years (both forward and backward in time), but after intervals longer than the Lyapunov time of 10–20 million years, calculations become speculative: Pluto is sensitive to immeasurably small details of the Solar System, hard-to-predict factors that will gradually change Pluto's position in its orbit. [76] [77]

The semi-major axis of Pluto's orbit varies between about 39.3 and 39.6  au with a period of about 19,951 years, corresponding to an orbital period varying between 246 and 249 years. The semi-major axis and period are presently getting longer. [78]

Orbit of Pluto – ecliptic view. This "side view" of Pluto's orbit (in red) shows its large inclination to the ecliptic.
TheKuiperBelt Orbits Pluto Polar.svg
Orbit of Pluto – polar view. This "view from above" shows how Pluto's orbit (in red) is less circular than Neptune's (in blue), and how Pluto is sometimes closer to the Sun than Neptune. The darker sections of both orbits show where they pass below the plane of the ecliptic.

Relationship with Neptune

Despite Pluto's orbit appearing to cross that of Neptune when viewed from directly above, the two objects' orbits are aligned so that they can never collide or even approach closely.

The two orbits do not intersect. When Pluto is closest to the Sun, and hence closest to Neptune's orbit as viewed from above, it is also the farthest above Neptune's path. Pluto's orbit passes about 8 AU above that of Neptune, preventing a collision. [79] [80] [81]

This alone is not enough to protect Pluto; perturbations from the planets (especially Neptune) could alter Pluto's orbit (such as its orbital precession) over millions of years so that a collision could be possible. However, Pluto is also protected by its 2:3 orbital resonance with Neptune: for every two orbits that Pluto makes around the Sun, Neptune makes three. Each cycle lasts about 495 years. This pattern is such that, in each 495-year cycle, the first time Pluto is near perihelion, Neptune is over 50° behind Pluto. By Pluto's second perihelion, Neptune will have completed a further one and a half of its own orbits, and so will be nearly 130° ahead of Pluto. Pluto and Neptune's minimum separation is over 17 AU, which is greater than Pluto's minimum separation from Uranus (11 AU). [81] The minimum separation between Pluto and Neptune actually occurs near the time of Pluto's aphelion. [78]

The 2:3 resonance between the two bodies is highly stable and has been preserved over millions of years. [82] This prevents their orbits from changing relative to one another, and so the two bodies can never pass near each other. Even if Pluto's orbit were not inclined, the two bodies could never collide. [81] The long term stability of the mean-motion resonance is due to phase protection. If Pluto's period is slightly shorter than 3/2 of Neptune, its orbit relative to Neptune will drift, causing it to make closer approaches behind Neptune's orbit. The strong gravitational pull between the two causes angular momentum to be transferred to Pluto, at Neptune's expense. This moves Pluto into a slightly larger orbit, where it travels slightly more slowly, according to Kepler's third law. After many such repetitions, Pluto is sufficiently slowed, and Neptune sufficiently sped up, that Pluto's orbit relative to Neptune drifts in the opposite direction until the process is reversed. The whole process takes about 20,000 years to complete. [81] [82] [83]

Other factors

Numerical studies have shown that over millions of years, the general nature of the alignment between the orbits of Pluto and Neptune does not change. [79] [78] There are several other resonances and interactions that enhance Pluto's stability. These arise principally from two additional mechanisms (besides the 2:3 mean-motion resonance).

First, Pluto's argument of perihelion, the angle between the point where it crosses the ecliptic and the point where it is closest to the Sun, librates around 90°. [78] This means that when Pluto is closest to the Sun, it is at its farthest above the plane of the Solar System, preventing encounters with Neptune. This is a consequence of the Kozai mechanism, [79] which relates the eccentricity of an orbit to its inclination to a larger perturbing body—in this case Neptune. Relative to Neptune, the amplitude of libration is 38°, and so the angular separation of Pluto's perihelion to the orbit of Neptune is always greater than 52° (90°–38°). The closest such angular separation occurs every 10,000 years. [82]

Second, the longitudes of ascending nodes of the two bodies—the points where they cross the ecliptic—are in near-resonance with the above libration. When the two longitudes are the same—that is, when one could draw a straight line through both nodes and the Sun—Pluto's perihelion lies exactly at 90°, and hence it comes closest to the Sun when it is highest above Neptune's orbit. This is known as the 1:1 superresonance. All the Jovian planets, particularly Jupiter, play a role in the creation of the superresonance. [79]


In 2012, it was hypothesized that 15810 Arawn could be a quasi-satellite of Pluto, a specific type of co-orbital configuration. [84] According to the hypothesis, the object would be a quasi-satellite of Pluto for about 350,000 years out of every two-million-year period. [84] [85] Measurements made by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015 made it possible to calculate the orbit of Arawn more accurately. [86] These calculations confirm the overall dynamics described in the hypothesis. [87] However, it is not agreed upon among astronomers whether Arawn should be classified as a quasi-satellite of Pluto based on this motion, since its orbit is primarily controlled by Neptune with only occasional smaller perturbations caused by Pluto. [88] [86] [87]


Pluto's rotation period, its day, is equal to 6.39 Earth days. [89] Like Uranus, Pluto rotates on its "side" in its orbital plane, with an axial tilt of 120°, and so its seasonal variation is extreme; at its solstices, one-fourth of its surface is in continuous daylight, whereas another fourth is in continuous darkness. [90] The reason for this unusual orientation has been debated. Research from the University of Arizona has suggested that it may be due to the way that a body's spin will always adjust to minimise energy. This could mean a body reorienting itself to put extraneous mass near the equator and regions lacking mass tend towards the poles. This is called polar wander . [91] According to a paper released from the University of Arizona, this could be caused by masses of frozen nitrogen building up in shadowed areas of the dwarf planet. These masses would cause the body to reorient itself, leading to its unusual axial tilt of 120°. The buildup of nitrogen is due to Pluto's vast distance from the Sun. At the equator, temperatures can drop to −240 °C (−400.0 °F; 33.1 K), causing nitrogen to freeze as water would freeze on Earth. The same effect seen on Pluto would be observed on Earth if the Antarctic ice sheet was several times larger. [92]


High-resolution MVIC image of Pluto in enhanced color to bring out differences in surface composition Pluto-01 Stern 03 Pluto Color TXT.jpg
High-resolution MVIC image of Pluto in enhanced color to bring out differences in surface composition
Regions where water ice has been detected (blue regions) NH-Pluto-WaterIceDetected-BlueRegions-Released-20151008.jpg
Regions where water ice has been detected (blue regions)


The plains on Pluto's surface are composed of more than 98 percent nitrogen ice, with traces of methane and carbon monoxide. [93] Nitrogen and carbon monoxide are most abundant on the anti-Charon face of Pluto (around 180° longitude, where Tombaugh Regio's western lobe, Sputnik Planitia, is located), whereas methane is most abundant near 300° east. [94] The mountains are made of water ice. [95] Pluto's surface is quite varied, with large differences in both brightness and color. [96] Pluto is one of the most contrastive bodies in the Solar System, with as much contrast as Saturn's moon Iapetus. [97] The color varies from charcoal black, to dark orange and white. [98] Pluto's color is more similar to that of Io with slightly more orange and significantly less red than Mars. [99] Notable geographical features include Tombaugh Regio, or the "Heart" (a large bright area on the side opposite Charon), Cthulhu Macula, [4] or the "Whale" (a large dark area on the trailing hemisphere), and the "Brass Knuckles" (a series of equatorial dark areas on the leading hemisphere).

Sputnik Planitia, the western lobe of the "Heart", is a 1,000 km-wide basin of frozen nitrogen and carbon monoxide ices, divided into polygonal cells, which are interpreted as convection cells that carry floating blocks of water ice crust and sublimation pits towards their margins; [100] [101] [102] there are obvious signs of glacial flows both into and out of the basin. [103] [104] It has no craters that were visible to New Horizons, indicating that its surface is less than 10 million years old. [105] Latest studies have shown that the surface has an age of 180000+90000
years. [106] The New Horizons science team summarized initial findings as "Pluto displays a surprisingly wide variety of geological landforms, including those resulting from glaciological and surface–atmosphere interactions as well as impact, tectonic, possible cryovolcanic, and mass-wasting processes." [6]

Distribution of over 1000 craters of all ages on Pluto. The variation in density (with none found in Sputnik Planitia) indicates a long history of varying geological activity.
Pluto's Sputnik Planum geologic map (cropped).jpg
Geologic map of Sputnik Planitia and surroundings (context), with convection cell margins outlined in black
Pluto's Heart - Like a Cosmic Lava Lamp.jpg
Sputnik Planitia is covered with churning nitrogen ice "cells" that are geologically young and turning over due to convection.

In Western parts of Sputnik Planitia there are fields of transverse dunes formed by the winds blowing from the center of Sputnik Planitia in the direction of surrounding mountains. The dune wavelengths are in the range of 0.4–1 km and they are likely consists of methane particles 200–300 μm in size. [107]

Internal structure

Internal structure of Pluto
Water ice crust
Liquid water ocean
Silicate core Pluto's internal structure2.jpg
Internal structure of Pluto
  • Water ice crust
  • Liquid water ocean
  • Silicate core

Pluto's density is 1.860±0.013 g/cm3. [6] Because the decay of radioactive elements would eventually heat the ices enough for the rock to separate from them, scientists expect that Pluto's internal structure is differentiated, with the rocky material having settled into a dense core surrounded by a mantle of water ice. The diameter of the core is hypothesized to be approximately 1700 km, 70% of Pluto's diameter. [108] It is possible that such heating continues today, creating a subsurface ocean of liquid water 100 to 180 km thick at the core–mantle boundary. [108] [109] [110] In September 2016, scientists at Brown University simulated the impact thought to have formed Sputnik Planitia, and showed that it might have been the result of liquid water upwelling from below after the collision, implying the existence of a subsurface ocean at least 100 km deep. [111] Pluto has no magnetic field. [112]

Mass and size

Selected size estimates for Pluto
19931195 kmMillis, et al. [113] (if no haze) [114]
19931180 kmMillis, et al. (surface & haze) [114]
19941164 kmYoung & Binzel [115]
20061153 kmBuie, et al. [41]
20071161 kmYoung, Young, & Buie [116]
20111180 kmZalucha, et al. [117]
20141184 kmLellouch, et al. [118]
20151187 kmNew Horizons measurement (from optical data) [119]
20171188.3 kmNew Horizons measurement (from radio occultation data) [5] [4]

Pluto's diameter is 2376.6±3.2 km [5] and its mass is (1.303±0.003)×1022 kg, 17.7% that of the Moon (0.22% that of Earth). [120] Its surface area is 1.779×107 km2, or roughly the same surface area as Russia. Its surface gravity is 0.063 g (compared to 1 g for Earth).

The discovery of Pluto's satellite Charon in 1978 enabled a determination of the mass of the Pluto–Charon system by application of Newton's formulation of Kepler's third law. Observations of Pluto in occultation with Charon allowed scientists to establish Pluto's diameter more accurately, whereas the invention of adaptive optics allowed them to determine its shape more accurately. [121]

Size comparisons: Earth, the Moon, and Pluto Pluto, Earth & Moon size comparison.jpg
Size comparisons: Earth, the Moon, and Pluto

With less than 0.2 lunar masses, Pluto is much less massive than the terrestrial planets, and also less massive than seven moons: Ganymede, Titan, Callisto, Io, the Moon, Europa, and Triton. The mass is much less than thought before Charon was discovered.

Pluto is more than twice the diameter and a dozen times the mass of the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. It is less massive than the dwarf planet Eris, a trans-Neptunian object discovered in 2005, though Pluto has a larger diameter of 2376.6 km [5] compared to Eris's approximate diameter of 2326 km. [122]

Determinations of Pluto's size had been complicated by its atmosphere, [116] and hydrocarbon haze. [114] In March 2014, Lellouch, de Bergh et al. published findings regarding methane mixing ratios in Pluto's atmosphere consistent with a Plutonian diameter greater than 2360 km, with a "best guess" of 2368 km. [118] On July 13, 2015, images from NASA's New Horizons mission Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), along with data from the other instruments, determined Pluto's diameter to be 2,370 km (1,470 mi), [122] [123] which was later revised to be 2,372 km (1,474 mi) on July 24, [119] and later to 2374±8 km. [6] Using radio occultation data from the New Horizons Radio Science Experiment (REX), the diameter was found to be 2376.6±3.2 km. [5]


A near-true-color image taken by New Horizons after its flyby. Numerous layers of blue haze float in Pluto's atmosphere. Along and near the limb, mountains and their shadows are visible. PIA21590 - Blue Rays, New Horizons' High-Res Farewell to Pluto.jpg
A near-true-color image taken by New Horizons after its flyby. Numerous layers of blue haze float in Pluto's atmosphere. Along and near the limb, mountains and their shadows are visible.
Image of Pluto in X-rays by Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue spot). The X-rays are probably created by interaction of the gases surrounding Pluto with solar wind, although details of their origin are not clear. PIA21061-Pluto-DwarfPlanet-XRays-20160914.jpg
Image of Pluto in X-rays by Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue spot). The X-rays are probably created by interaction of the gases surrounding Pluto with solar wind, although details of their origin are not clear.

Pluto has a tenuous atmosphere consisting of nitrogen (N2), methane (CH4), and carbon monoxide (CO), which are in equilibrium with their ices on Pluto's surface. [124] [125] According to the measurements by New Horizons, the surface pressure is about 1  Pa (10  μbar), [6] roughly one million to 100,000 times less than Earth's atmospheric pressure. It was initially thought that, as Pluto moves away from the Sun, its atmosphere should gradually freeze onto the surface; studies of New Horizons data and ground-based occultations show that Pluto's atmospheric density increases, and that it likely remains gaseous throughout Pluto's orbit. [126] [127] New Horizons observations showed that atmospheric escape of nitrogen to be 10,000 times less than expected. [127] Alan Stern has contended that even a small increase in Pluto's surface temperature can lead to exponential increases in Pluto's atmospheric density; from 18 hPa to as much as 280 hPa (three times that of Mars to a quarter that of the Earth). At such densities, nitrogen could flow across the surface as liquid. [127] Just like sweat cools the body as it evaporates from the skin, the sublimation of Pluto's atmosphere cools its surface. [128] The presence of atmospheric gases was traced up to 1670 kilometers high; the atmosphere does not have a sharp upper boundary.

The presence of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, in Pluto's atmosphere creates a temperature inversion, with the average temperature of its atmosphere tens of degrees warmer than its surface, [129] though observations by New Horizons have revealed Pluto's upper atmosphere to be far colder than expected (70 K, as opposed to about 100 K). [127] Pluto's atmosphere is divided into roughly 20 regularly spaced haze layers up to 150 km high, [6] thought to be the result of pressure waves created by airflow across Pluto's mountains. [127]


Pluto has five known natural satellites. The closest to Pluto is Charon. First identified in 1978 by astronomer James Christy, Charon is the only moon of Pluto in hydrostatic equilibrium; Charon's mass is sufficient to cause the barycenter of the Pluto–Charon system to be outside Pluto. Beyond Charon there are four much smaller circumbinary moons. In order of distance from Pluto they are Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Nix and Hydra were both discovered in 2005, [130] Kerberos was discovered in 2011, [131] and Styx was discovered in 2012. [132] The satellites' orbits are circular (eccentricity < 0.006) and coplanar with Pluto's equator (inclination < 1°), [133] [134] and therefore tilted approximately 120° relative to Pluto's orbit. The Plutonian system is highly compact: the five known satellites orbit within the inner 3% of the region where prograde orbits would be stable. [135]

The orbital periods of all Pluto's moons are linked in a system of orbital resonances and near resonances. [134] [136] When precession is accounted for, the orbital periods of Styx, Nix, and Hydra are in an exact 18:22:33 ratio. [134] There is a sequence of approximate ratios, 3:4:5:6, between the periods of Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra with that of Charon; the ratios become closer to being exact the further out the moons are. [134] [137]

An oblique view of the Pluto-Charon system showing that Pluto orbits a point outside itself. The two bodies are mutually tidally locked. Pluto-Charon system-new.gif
An oblique view of the Pluto–Charon system showing that Pluto orbits a point outside itself. The two bodies are mutually tidally locked.

The Pluto–Charon system is one of the few in the Solar System whose barycenter lies outside the primary body; the Patroclus–Menoetius system is a smaller example, and the Sun–Jupiter system is the only larger one. [138] The similarity in size of Charon and Pluto has prompted some astronomers to call it a double dwarf planet. [139] The system is also unusual among planetary systems in that each is tidally locked to the other, which means that Pluto and Charon always have the same hemisphere facing each other. From any position on either body, the other is always at the same position in the sky, or always obscured. [140] This also means that the rotation period of each is equal to the time it takes the entire system to rotate around its barycenter. [89]

In 2007, observations by the Gemini Observatory of patches of ammonia hydrates and water crystals on the surface of Charon suggested the presence of active cryo-geysers. [141]

Pluto's moons are hypothesized to have been formed by a collision between Pluto and a similar-sized body, early in the history of the Solar System. The collision released material that consolidated into the moons around Pluto. [142]

Pluto moon P5 discovery with moons' orbits.jpg
Pluto charon 150709 color final.png
Nh-pluto moons family portrait-truecolor.png
Charon in True Color - High-Res.jpg
1. The Pluto system: Pluto, Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope in July 2012. 2. Pluto and Charon, to scale. Image acquired by New Horizons on July 8, 2015. 3. Family portrait of the five moons of Pluto, to scale. [143] 4. Pluto's moon Charon as viewed by New Horizons on July 13, 2015


Plot of the known Kuiper belt objects, set against the four giant planets Outersolarsystem objectpositions labels comp.png
Plot of the known Kuiper belt objects, set against the four giant planets

Pluto's origin and identity had long puzzled astronomers. One early hypothesis was that Pluto was an escaped moon of Neptune, [144] knocked out of orbit by its largest current moon, Triton. This idea was eventually rejected after dynamical studies showed it to be impossible because Pluto never approaches Neptune in its orbit. [145]

Pluto's true place in the Solar System began to reveal itself only in 1992, when astronomers began to find small icy objects beyond Neptune that were similar to Pluto not only in orbit but also in size and composition. This trans-Neptunian population is thought to be the source of many short-period comets. Pluto is now known to be the largest member of the Kuiper belt, [lower-alpha 10] a stable belt of objects located between 30 and 50 AU from the Sun. As of 2011, surveys of the Kuiper belt to magnitude 21 were nearly complete and any remaining Pluto-sized objects are expected to be beyond 100 AU from the Sun. [146] Like other Kuiper-belt objects (KBOs), Pluto shares features with comets; for example, the solar wind is gradually blowing Pluto's surface into space. [147] It has been claimed that if Pluto were placed as near to the Sun as Earth, it would develop a tail, as comets do. [148] This claim has been disputed with the argument that Pluto's escape velocity is too high for this to happen. [149] Nonetheless, it has also been claimed that Pluto may have formed as a result of the agglomeration of numerous comets and related Kuiper belt objects. [150] [151]

Though Pluto is the largest Kuiper belt object discovered, [114] Neptune's moon Triton, which is slightly larger than Pluto, is similar to it both geologically and atmospherically, and is thought to be a captured Kuiper belt object. [152] Eris (see above) is about the same size as Pluto (though more massive) but is not strictly considered a member of the Kuiper belt population. Rather, it is considered a member of a linked population called the scattered disc.

A large number of Kuiper belt objects, like Pluto, are in a 2:3 orbital resonance with Neptune. KBOs with this orbital resonance are called "plutinos", after Pluto. [153]

Like other members of the Kuiper belt, Pluto is thought to be a residual planetesimal; a component of the original protoplanetary disc around the Sun that failed to fully coalesce into a full-fledged planet. Most astronomers agree that Pluto owes its current position to a sudden migration undergone by Neptune early in the Solar System's formation. As Neptune migrated outward, it approached the objects in the proto-Kuiper belt, setting one in orbit around itself (Triton), locking others into resonances, and knocking others into chaotic orbits. The objects in the scattered disc, a dynamically unstable region overlapping the Kuiper belt, are thought to have been placed in their current positions by interactions with Neptune's migrating resonances. [154] A computer model created in 2004 by Alessandro Morbidelli of the Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur in Nice suggested that the migration of Neptune into the Kuiper belt may have been triggered by the formation of a 1:2 resonance between Jupiter and Saturn, which created a gravitational push that propelled both Uranus and Neptune into higher orbits and caused them to switch places, ultimately doubling Neptune's distance from the Sun. The resultant expulsion of objects from the proto-Kuiper belt could also explain the Late Heavy Bombardment 600 million years after the Solar System's formation and the origin of the Jupiter trojans. [155] It is possible that Pluto had a near-circular orbit about 33 AU from the Sun before Neptune's migration perturbed it into a resonant capture. [156] The Nice model requires that there were about a thousand Pluto-sized bodies in the original planetesimal disk, which included Triton and Eris. [155]

Observation and exploration

Pluto's distance from Earth makes its in-depth study and exploration difficult. On July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons space probe flew through the Pluto system, providing much information about it. [157]


Computer-generated rotating image of Pluto based on observations by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002-2003 Pluto animiert 200px.gif
Computer-generated rotating image of Pluto based on observations by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002–2003

Pluto's visual apparent magnitude averages 15.1, brightening to 13.65 at perihelion. [2] To see it, a telescope is required; around 30 cm (12 in) aperture being desirable. [158] It looks star-like and without a visible disk even in large telescopes, because its angular diameter is only 0.11".

The earliest maps of Pluto, made in the late 1980s, were brightness maps created from close observations of eclipses by its largest moon, Charon. Observations were made of the change in the total average brightness of the Pluto–Charon system during the eclipses. For example, eclipsing a bright spot on Pluto makes a bigger total brightness change than eclipsing a dark spot. Computer processing of many such observations can be used to create a brightness map. This method can also track changes in brightness over time. [159] [160]

Better maps were produced from images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which offered higher resolution, and showed considerably more detail, [97] resolving variations several hundred kilometers across, including polar regions and large bright spots. [99] These maps were produced by complex computer processing, which finds the best-fit projected maps for the few pixels of the Hubble images. [161] These remained the most detailed maps of Pluto until the flyby of New Horizons in July 2015, because the two cameras on the HST used for these maps were no longer in service. [161]


The portions of Pluto's surface mapped by New Horizons (annotated) Pluto-Map-Annotated.jpg
The portions of Pluto's surface mapped by New Horizons (annotated)

The New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto in July 2015, is the first and so far only attempt to explore Pluto directly. Launched in 2006, it captured its first (distant) images of Pluto in late September 2006 during a test of the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. [162] The images, taken from a distance of approximately 4.2 billion kilometers, confirmed the spacecraft's ability to track distant targets, critical for maneuvering toward Pluto and other Kuiper belt objects. In early 2007 the craft made use of a gravity assist from Jupiter.

New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, after a 3,462-day journey across the Solar System. Scientific observations of Pluto began five months before the closest approach and continued for at least a month after the encounter. Observations were conducted using a remote sensing package that included imaging instruments and a radio science investigation tool, as well as spectroscopic and other experiments. The scientific goals of New Horizons were to characterize the global geology and morphology of Pluto and its moon Charon, map their surface composition, and analyze Pluto's neutral atmosphere and its escape rate. On October 25, 2016, at 05:48 pm ET, the last bit of data (of a total of 50 billion bits of data; or 6.25 gigabytes) was received from New Horizons from its close encounter with Pluto. [163] [164] [165] [166]

Since the New Horizons flyby, scientists have advocated for an orbiter mission that would return to Pluto to fulfill new science objectives. [167] They include mapping the surface at 30 feet per pixel, observations of Pluto's smaller satellites, observations of how Pluto changes as it rotates on its axis, and topographic mapping of Pluto's regions that are covered in long-term darkness due to its axial tilt. The last objective could be accomplished using laser pulses to generate a complete topographic map of Pluto. New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern has advocated for a Cassini-style orbiter that would launch around 2030 (the 100th anniversary of Pluto's discovery) and use Charon's gravity to adjust its orbit as needed to fulfill science objectives after arriving at the Pluto system. [168] The orbiter could then use Charon's gravity to leave the Pluto system and study more KBOs after all Pluto science objectives are completed. A conceptual study funded by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program describes a fusion-enabled Pluto orbiter and lander based on the Princeton field-reversed configuration reactor. [169] [170]


Pluto flyover animated (July 14, 2015)
This mosaic strip – extending across the hemisphere that faced the New Horizons spacecraft as it flew past Pluto. (No Audio – 1080p 60fps)

See also


  1. This photograph was taken by the Ralph telescope aboard New Horizons on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 35,445 km (22,025 mi). The most prominent feature in the image, the bright, youthful plains of Tombaugh Regio and Sputnik Planitia, can be seen at right. It contrasts the darker, more cratered terrain of Cthulhu Macula at lower left. Because of Pluto's 119.591° tilt at its axis, the southern hemisphere is barely visible in this image; the equator runs through Cthulhu Macula and the southern parts of Sputnik Planitia.
  2. The mean elements here are from the Theory of the Outer Planets (TOP2013) solution by the Institut de mécanique céleste et de calcul des éphémérides (IMCCE). They refer to the standard equinox J2000, the barycenter of the Solar System, and the epoch J2000.
  3. Surface area derived from the radius r: .
  4. Volume v derived from the radius r: .
  5. Surface gravity derived from the mass M, the gravitational constant G and the radius r: .
  6. Escape velocity derived from the mass M, the gravitational constant G and the radius r: .
  7. Based on geometry of minimum and maximum distance from Earth and Pluto radius in the factsheet
  8. The equivalence is less close in languages whose phonology differs widely from Greek's, such as Somali Buluuto and Navajo Tłóotoo.
  9. The discovery of Charon in 1978 allowed astronomers to accurately calculate the mass of the Plutonian system. But it did not indicate the two bodies' individual masses, which could only be estimated after other moons of Pluto were discovered in late 2005. As a result, because Pluto came to perihelion in 1989, most Pluto perihelion date estimates are based on the Pluto–Charon barycenter. Charon came to perihelion 4 September 1989. The Pluto–Charon barycenter came to perihelion 5 September 1989. Pluto came to perihelion 8 September 1989.
  10. The dwarf planet Eris is roughly the same size as Pluto, about 2330 km; Eris is 28% more massive than Pluto. Eris is a scattered-disc object, often considered a distinct population from Kuiper-belt objects like Pluto; Pluto is the largest body in the Kuiper belt proper, which excludes the scattered-disc objects.

Related Research Articles

Classical Kuiper belt object Kuiper belt object, not controlled by an orbital resonance with Neptune

A classical Kuiper belt object, also called a cubewano ( "QB1-o"), is a low-eccentricity Kuiper belt object (KBO) that orbits beyond Neptune and is not controlled by an orbital resonance with Neptune. Cubewanos have orbits with semi-major axes in the 40–50 AU range and, unlike Pluto, do not cross Neptune's orbit. That is, they have low-eccentricity and sometimes low-inclination orbits like the classical planets.

Double planet An informal term used to describe a planet with its moon

In astronomy, a double planet is a binary system where both objects are of planetary mass. The term is not recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and is therefore not an official classification. At its 2006 General Assembly, the International Astronomical Union considered a proposal that Pluto and Charon be reclassified as a double planet, but the proposal was abandoned in favor of the current definition of planet. In promotional materials advertising the SMART-1 mission and pre-dating the IAU planet definition, the European Space Agency once referred to the Earth–Moon system as a double planet.

Natural satellite astronomical body that orbits a planet

A natural satellite or moon is, in the most common usage, an astronomical body that orbits a planet or minor planet.

90377 Sedna a large minor planet in the outer reaches of the Solar System

90377 Sedna, or simply Sedna, is a large minor planet in the outer reaches of the Solar System that was, as of 2015, at a distance of about 86 astronomical units (1.29×1010 km; 8.0×109 mi) from the Sun, about three times as far as Neptune. Spectroscopy has revealed that Sedna's surface composition is similar to those of some other trans-Neptunian objects, being largely a mixture of water, methane, and nitrogen ices with tholins. Its surface is one of the reddest among Solar System objects. It is a possible dwarf planet. Among the eight largest trans-Neptunian objects, Sedna is the only one not known to have a moon.

Definition of <i>planet</i> definition of word planet

The definition of planet, since the word was coined by the ancient Greeks, has included within its scope a wide range of celestial bodies. Greek astronomers employed the term asteres planetai, "wandering stars", for star-like objects which apparently moved over the sky. Over the millennia, the term has included a variety of different objects, from the Sun and the Moon to satellites and asteroids.

Haumea dwarf planet in the Solar System

Haumea is a dwarf planet located beyond Neptune's orbit. It was discovered in 2004 by a team headed by Mike Brown of Caltech at the Palomar Observatory in the United States and independently in 2005, by a team headed by José Luis Ortiz Moreno at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain, though the latter claim has been contested. On September 17, 2008, it was recognized as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and named after Haumea, the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, though subsequent observations cast doubt on its shape being consistent with hydrostatic equilibrium.

Makemake dwarf planet in the Solar System

Makemake is a dwarf planet and perhaps the second largest Kuiper belt object in the classical population, with a diameter approximately two-thirds that of Pluto. Makemake has one known satellite, S/2015 (136472) 1. Makemake's extremely low average temperature, about 30 K (−243.2 °C), means its surface is covered with methane, ethane, and possibly nitrogen ices.

Hydra (moon) outermost known natural satellite of Pluto

Hydra is a natural satellite of Pluto, with a diameter of approximately 51 km (32 mi) across its longest dimension. It is the second largest moon of Pluto, being slightly larger than Nix. Hydra was discovered along with Nix by the Pluto Companion Search Team in June 2005. It was named after the Hydra, the nine-headed underworld serpent in Greek mythology. By distance, Hydra is the fifth and outermost moon of Pluto, orbiting beyond Pluto's fourth moon Kerberos.

IAU definition of <i>planet</i> definition of a planet as a body orbiting the Sun, in hydrostatic equilibrium, having cleared the neighborhood around its orbit; ratified by the IAU in 2006, thereby reclassifying Pluto as a dwarf planet instead

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined in August 2006 that, in the Solar System, a planet is a celestial body which:

  1. is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium, and
  3. has "cleared the neighborhood" around its orbit.
Plutoid trans-Neptunian dwarf planet

A plutoid or ice dwarf is a trans-Neptunian dwarf planet, i.e. a body orbiting beyond Neptune that is massive enough to be rounded in shape. The term plutoid was adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) working group Committee on Small Bodies Nomenclature, but was rejected by the IAU working group Planetary System Nomenclature. The term plutoid is not widely used by astronomers, though ice dwarf is not uncommon.

15810 Arawn minor planet

15810 Arawn, provisional designation 1994 JR1, is a trans-Neptunian object (TNO) from the inner regions of the Kuiper belt, approximately 133 kilometres (83 mi) in diameter. It belongs to the plutinos, the largest class of resonant TNOs. It was named after Arawn, the ruler of the Celtic underworld, and discovered on 12 May 1994, by astronomers Michael Irwin and Anna Żytkow with the 2.5-metre Isaac Newton Telescope at La Palma Observatory in the Canary Islands, Spain.

50000 Quaoar Cold classical Kuiper belt object

50000 Quaoar, provisional designation 2002 LM60, is a non-resonant trans-Neptunian object (cubewano) and a possible dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt, a region of icy planetesimals beyond Neptune. It measures approximately 1,100 km (680 mi) in diameter, which is about half the diameter of Pluto. The object was discovered by American astronomers Chad Trujillo and Michael Brown at the Palomar Observatory on 6 June 2002. Signs of water ice on the surface of Quaoar have been found, which suggests that cryovolcanism may be occurring on Quaoar. A small amount of methane is present on its surface, which can only be retained by the largest Kuiper belt objects. In February 2007, Weywot, a synchronous minor-planet moon in orbit around Quaoar, was discovered by Brown. Weywot is measured to be 80 km (50 mi) across. Both objects were named after mythological figures from the Native American Tongva people in Southern California. Quaoar is the Tongva creator deity and Weywot is his son.

Kerberos (moon) natural satellite orbiting Pluto

Kerberos is a small natural satellite of Pluto, about 19 km (12 mi) in its longest dimension. It was the fourth moon of Pluto to be discovered and its existence was announced on 20 July 2011. It was imaged, along with Pluto and its four other moons, by the New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015. The first image of Kerberos was released to the public on 22 October 2015.


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