This close encounter, which will occur on January 1, 2019, about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto's orbit, is the centerpiece of New Horizons' extended mission. Dwarf planet? Big asteroid? By comparing the results with the low levels of carbon monoxide, researchers realized Pluto was influenced by liquid water.
In a new paper published on Saturday (NZ time), scientists propose the distant dwarf was formed "by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets".
Thanks to the Pluto probe New Horizons and Rosetta, the space probe sent to study Comet 67P, we have a new and unprecedented wealth of data about both Pluto and comets. Christopher Glein and J. Hunter Waite Jr., the scientists of SwRI observed that the composition of Sputnik Planitia, the large, nitrogen-rich ice-covered basin on Pluto, is similar to the what Rosetta found on Comet 67P. According to them, Pluto might be a huge comet.
This view of Pluto's Sputnik Planitia nitrogen-ice plain was captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft during its flyby of the dwarf planet in July 2015. Inning accordance with this alternate theory, Pluto formed from extremely cold ices with chemical structures that more carefully matches that of the Sun.
Dr. Christopher Glein at the Southwest Research Institute said in a statement, "We've developed what we call "the giant comet" cosmochemical model of Pluto formation".
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Scientists needed to understand not only the nitrogen present at Pluto now - in its atmosphere and in glaciers - but also how much of the volatile element potentially could have leaked out of the atmosphere and into space over the eons.
Previously, scientists thought that maybe the nitrogen came from comets that landed on Pluto - but that model would not account for the sheer amount of it. Possible processes to explain "missing CO" that are given quantitative support here are fractional crystallization from the atmosphere resulting in CO burial at the surface, and aqueous destruction reactions of CO subject to metastable thermodynamic equilibrium in the subsurface.
Glein said that his research implies that Pluto's initial chemical makeup, which is inherited from cometary building blocks, was chemically modified by liquid water. There are several constraints that the solar mode satisfies. However, the research points to several interesting possibilities along with countless unanswered questions.
"This research builds upon the fantastic successes of the New Horizons and Rosetta missions to expand our understanding of the origin and evolution of Pluto", Glein said. "This leads to a new appreciation of the richness of Pluto's 'life story, ' which we are only starting to grasp", he added.