Tonight's Sky
Sun
Sun
Moon
Moon
Mercury
Mercury
Venus
Venus
Mars
Mars
Jupiter
Jupiter
Saturn
Saturn

Tonight's Sky — Change location

OR

Searching...

Tonight's Sky — Select location

Tonight's Sky — Enter coordinates

° '
° '

How big is Pluto? New Horizons settles decades-long debate

Based on the most recent data, Pluto is actually larger than previous conservative estimates, making it the largest of all known solar system objects beyond Neptune.
RELATED TOPICS: SOLAR SYSTEM | PLUTO | CHARON | NEW HORIZONS
PlutoCharon_071115
A portrait from the final approach. Pluto and Charon display striking color and brightness contrast in this composite image from July 11, showing high-resolution black-and-white LORRI images colorized with Ralph data collected from the last rotation of Pluto. Color data being returned by the spacecraft now will update these images, bringing color contrast into sharper focus.
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Pluto_071215
Pluto’s bright, mysterious “heart” is rotating into view, ready for its close-up on close approach, in this image taken by New Horizons on July 12 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers). It is the target of the highest-resolution images that will be taken during the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The intriguing “bull's-eye” feature at right is rotating out of view, and will not be seen in greater detail.
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Charon_071215
Charon’s newly-discovered system of chasms, larger than the Grand Canyon on Earth, rotates out of view in New Horizons’ sharpest image yet of the Texas-sized moon. It’s trailed by a large equatorial impact crater that is ringed by bright rays of ejected material. In this latest image, the dark north polar region is displaying new and intriguing patterns. This image was taken on July 12 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers).
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
NASA’s New Horizons mission has answered one of the most basic questions about Pluto — its size.

Mission scientists have found Pluto to be 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers) in diameter, somewhat larger than many prior estimates. Images acquired with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were used to make this determination. This result confirms what was already suspected: Pluto is larger than all other known solar system objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.

“The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” said mission scientist Bill McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis.

Pluto’s newly estimated size means that its density is slightly lower than previously thought, and the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher. Also, the lowest layer of Pluto’s atmosphere, called the troposphere, is shallower than previously believed.

Measuring Pluto’s size has been a decades-long challenge due to complicating factors from its atmosphere. Its largest moon, Charon, lacks a substantial atmosphere, and its diameter was easier to determine using ground-based telescopes. New Horizons observations of Charon confirm previous estimates of 751 miles (1,208km) across.

LORRI has also zoomed in on two of Pluto’s smaller moons, Nix and Hydra.

“We knew from the time we designed our flyby that we would only be able to study the small moons in detail for just a few days before closest approach,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Now, deep inside Pluto’s sphere of influence, that time has come."
pluto_sidebar_final
Nix and Hydra were discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005. Even to Hubble, they appeared as points of light, and that’s how they looked to New Horizons until the final week of its approach to Pluto. Now, the latest LORRI images show the two diminutive satellites not as pinpoints, but as moons seen well enough to measure their sizes. Nix is estimated to be about 20 miles (35km) across, while Hydra is roughly 30 miles (45km) across. These sizes lead mission scientists to conclude that their surfaces are quite bright, possibly due to the presence of ice.

What about Pluto’s two smallest moons, Kerberos and Styx? Smaller and fainter than Nix and Hydra, they are harder to measure. Mission scientists should be able to determine their sizes with observations New Horizons will make during the flyby and will transmit to Earth at a later date.
Approaching Pluto
Regularly uploaded raw, unprocessed 100-millisecond images of the Pluto system from New Horizons' LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

July 13, 2015

Distance: 500,000 miles (800,000km)
0

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Read and share your comments on this article
Comment on this article
Want to leave a comment?
Only registered members of Astronomy.com are allowed to comment on this article. Registration is FREE and only takes a couple minutes.

Login or Register now.
0 comments
ADVERTISEMENT

FREE EMAIL NEWSLETTER

Receive news, sky-event information, observing tips, and more from Astronomy's weekly email newsletter. View our Privacy Policy.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
asy_blackholes_300x250

Click here to download a FREE Black Holes PDF curated by Astronomy magazine.

Find us on Facebook