All hail Plutonium! The metal has been under the spotlightfor being the only metal that does not stick to magnets. And now it turns out this super metal is what skyrocketed us all the way to Pluto – at the very edge of the solar system. The planet Pluto, and its sister planet Charon, were viewed up close for the first time by NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft as it zipped by on Tuesday. Traveling at around 58,000 kilometers per hour, this spacecraft was the fastest spacecraft ever to leave Earth and for the longest time too – nine and half years to be precise! All thanks to Plutonium.
The radionuclide Pu-238 is capable of generating continuous power far out in space where solar energy is too weak, chemical energy is too heavy, and batteries and fuel cells are too short-lived to be used. It’s a wonder then that were able to reach the dwarf planet propelled and powered by Plutonium.
And what a bizarre discovery it turned out to be. Pluto’s geologic features are fascinating, indicating crustal motion of an active planet, and not just mere passive cratering of a dead surface. There are mountain ranges, chasms as large as our Grand Canyon and excessive amounts of magnetic activity.
Pluto’s entire atmosphere freezes out and condenses onto the surface when it gets close to the farthest area from the Sun. The highly elliptical orbit brings it in and out over a billion miles closer to the Sun each Plutonian year, even bringing the planet inside the orbit of Neptune for awhile along its path.
Pluto has a variety of ices in its crust, not just water and methane ice. There are geologic features we saw this week on both small planets that indicate crustal motion and not just mere passive cratering of a dead surface. There are mountain ranges on Pluto, chasms as large as our Grand Canyon on Charon, and some areas on both worlds with no craters, indicating extreme youth and geologic activity.
Cryovolcanoes, liquid nitrogen geysers, and other active geologic processes have already set Pluto and Charon apart from other icy bodies orbiting the giant planets of the outer Solar System, especially as the heat source for such activity is not immediately obvious.
As Washington University’s William McKinnon puts it, these planets – referring to Pluto and its five moons – have differentiated into core-mantle-crust, some have active atmospheres and weather, and all sorts of interesting things going on, some even having a liquid water mantle, as we suspect Pluto and Charon to have.