Astronomy Picture of the Day
APOD: 1999 February 13 - Pluto: The Frozen Planet
Explanation: This portrait of Pluto and its companion Charon was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994. Pluto is usually the most distant planet from the Sun but because of its eccentric orbit Pluto crossed inside of Neptune's orbit in 1979. On Thursday, February 11th, it crossed back out, recovering its status as the most distant of nine planets. Pluto is still considered to be a planet, although very little is known about it compared to other planets. Pluto is smaller than any other planet and even smaller than several other planet's moons. Pluto is probably composed of frozen rock and ice, much like Neptune's moon Triton. Pluto has not yet been visited by a spacecraft, but a mission is being planned for the next decade.
APOD: 2001 October 18 - Pluto: New Horizons
Explanation: Pluto's horizon spans the foreground in this artist's vision, gazing sunward across that distant and not yet explored world. Titled New Horizons, the painting also depicts Pluto's companion, Charon, as a darkened, ghostly apparition with a luminous crescent against a starry background. Beyond Charon, the diminished Sun is immersed in a flattened cloud of zodiacal dust. Here, Pluto's ruddy colours are based on existing astronomical observations while imagined but scientifically tenable details provided by the artist include high atmospheric cirrus and dark plumes from surface vents, in analogy to Neptune's large moon Triton explored by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989. Craters suggest bombardment by Kuiper Belt objects, a newly understood population of outer solar system bodies likely related to the Pluto-Charon system. NASA is now considering a future robotic reconnaissance mission to Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper Belt which could reach the distant worlds late in the next decade.
APOD: 2006 June 24 - Nix and Hydra
Explanation: Discovered in mid-2005, Pluto's small moons were provisionally designated S/2005 P1 and S/2005 P2. They have now been officially christened Nix and Hydra. Compared to Pluto and its large moon Charon, at 2,360 and 1,210 kilometres in diameter respectively, Nix (inner moon) and Hydra (outer moon) are tiny, estimated to be only 40 to 160 kilometres across. Pluto and Charon are bright enough to create diffraction spikes in this Hubble Space Telescope image, but Nix and Hydra are some 5,000 times fainter than Pluto and appear only as small points of light. Still, their new names are appropriate for the distant Pluto system. In mythology, Nix was the goddess of darkness and night and the mother of Charon, while Hydra was a nine headed monster and is now orbiting the solar system's ninth planet. Of course Nix and Hydra also share initials with the pluto-bound spacecraft New Horizons.
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