It’s Cold Out There

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Pluto is the smallest, coldest and most distant dwarf planet with an atmosphere in the Solar System. It orbits the Sun every 248 years, and its surface temperature is between -378 and -396 degrees Fahrenheit (-228 to -238 degrees Celsius). Its atmosphere consists of nitrogen, with traces of methane and carbon monoxide.

Scientists aimed to record the seasonal evolution of Pluto’s surface pressure by observing ground-based stellar occultations to gain the atmosphere’s profile including density, pressure and temperature. They were able to construct seasonal models of Pluto and how it responds to changes with the amount of sunlight it receives as it orbits the Sun. What they found was when Pluto is farthest away from the Sun, and during its winter in the northern hemisphere, the nitrogen freezes out of the atmosphere.

The atmospheric pressure has tripled over the past three decades, but as the dwarf planet orbits, the modeling showed that most of the atmosphere would condense to the point that there is almost nothing left.

What the predictions show is that by 2030 the atmosphere is going to frost out and vanish around the entire planet. If it does freeze over, Pluto may appear brighter in the sky due to sunlight reflecting from it.

The findings will be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.