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New Horizons: Pluto Surrounded by a Stunning Halo of Haze

posted: 07/24/15
by: Discovery.com Staff
Pluto's haze
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

After its closest approach to Pluto, New Horizons looked over its shoulder to capture a breathtaking glimpse of the dwarf planet's 80-mile-high hazy halo -- a feature that we didn't think could exist at such altitudes.

Astronomers had initially estimated that it would be too warm for haze to form more than 20 miles above Pluto's surface. A preliminary analysis indicates that there are actually two distinct layers of haze, one at 30 miles above the surface and another at 50 miles.

"We're going to need some new ideas to figure out what's going on," remarked flabbergasted New Horizons co-investigator Michael Summers.

In a press release, NASA explains how the haze forms:

"Models suggest the hazes form when ultraviolet sunlight breaks up methane gas particles -- a simple hydrocarbon in Pluto's atmosphere. The breakdown of methane triggers the buildup of more complex hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene and acetylene, which also were discovered in Pluto's atmosphere by New Horizons. As these hydrocarbons fall to the lower, colder parts of the atmosphere, they condense into ice particles that create the hazes."

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