NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took this enhanced-colour image of Pluto on July 14, 2015. (Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
It will take some time before astronomers can celebrate Pluto’s first complete orbit since its discovery.
On February 18, 1930, Pluto was found using the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Clyde Tombaugh, an American astronomer, discovered a moving object unmistakably outside Neptune’s orbit. Pluto, the lord of the Greek underworld in mythology, was the name given to that item later.
Pluto’s status as a planet or a dwarf planet has been the subject of a protracted argument. However, scientists believe that since Tombaugh discovered Pluto in images, the planet hasn’t made a single round around the sun.
Pluto’s orbit around the sun takes 248.09 Earth years to complete. When you enter that data and the date of Pluto’s discovery into a timeanddate.com calculator, you’ll learn that the planet will complete its first complete orbit since its discovery on Monday, March 23, 2178.
The bigger planets in our solar system often revolve close to the ecliptic, the solar system’s plane. Pluto, however, has a significant inclination of 17 degrees compared to Earth and many other planets.
Will Grundy of the Lowell Observatory, a co-investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission that visited the Pluto system in 2015 and Arrokoth in January 2019, noted that the dwarf planet Eris exceeds that at 44 degrees. Now the ship is heading toward the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper belt is a circumstellar disc in the outer Solar System, extending from the orbit of Neptune at 30 astronomical units (AU) to approximately 50 AU from the Sun.
As a result of dynamical interactions between planets early in the formation of the solar system, Grundy noted that the inclinations of smaller planets tend to be higher: Mercury’s is seven degrees, Eris’ is seven degrees, Makemake’s is 29 degrees, and Haumea’s is 28.2 degrees.
The small world eccentricity, which measures how far an orbit is from a perfect circle, is also accurate. While Pluto’s orbit is extended with an eccentricity of 0.25, Earth’s orbit is practically round. Mercury’s value is 0.205, Eris’ is 0.44, Makemake’s is 0.16, and Haumea’s is 0.20, in contrast.
The deviations present among these various worlds, he said, “are valuable clues to dramatic events that happened early in solar system history, calling for a complicated history of planetary migrations and close encounters and maybe even some planets being kicked out of the solar system entirely to become free-floating rogue planets.”
There are four things to take into account about Pluto’s orbit, according to Alan Stern, lead investigator on New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute. The first two are its eccentricity and inclination.
The third is the resonance between Pluto and Neptune. This massive gas giant is entangled in a gravitational dance with Pluto that maintains both bodies in a regular orbital sequence (which we also see at places like Saturn, which have a lot of moons in resonant orbits).
What transpires as a result of that resonance is the fourth. Over the course of each orbit, Pluto approaches the sun closer than Neptune does for roughly 20 years. Stern remarked that this happened on a regular basis and that Neptune was always on the other side of the sun. Due to their resonance, “the two can never come together.”
Pluto is in the area known as the Kuiper Belt, which is populated by frozen planets known as Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). The easiest way to conceive about KBOs is as worlds inhabiting “the same zip code” at the extreme limits of the solar system, according to Stern, who highlighted that these objects are highly distinct from one another and that there are at least four recognised varieties.
Pluto will respond to brighter or weaker sunlight depending on where in its orbit it is in relation to the sun. For instance, Pluto’s atmosphere will be more massive when the heating is higher, according to Stern. A thicker, more massive atmosphere results from more ice being sublimated into gas as a result of increasing sunshine, he said.