The New Horizons spacecraft has revealed all manners of surprising new information about the on-again, off-again dwarf planet Pluto. In the last year, evidence of liquid oceans has been found on the tiny planet, possibly lying under Pluto’s icy surface. The New Horizons data has called Pluto’s disputed classification into further question, with some astronomers believing Pluto deserves a unique hybrid class of its own. Whatever Pluto might be called this week, astronomers have gotten another reason to turn their attention towards the dwarf planetoid-comet-hybrid thing: a study of New Horizons data has revealed that Pluto could be suited for life.
When combing through the mountains of data New Horizons gathered about Pluto, researchers detected a fine haze of hydrocarbons at extremely high altitudes above Pluto. Without such a low atmospheric pressure, these compounds are able to rise high above the planet(oid)’s surface. An unexplained reddish hue was also spotted around some of Pluto’s calderas, or ice volcanoes. The researchers believe this implies the presence of organic material called tholins which are created when certain compounds interact with ultraviolet radiation.
Michael Summers, a planetary scientist working on the New Horizons research project, claims that these discoveries came as a shock even to veteran astronomers such as himself:
These are the things you need for life: organics, raw material, and energy. I've been studying Pluto all my life, and never expected to talk about these things being there.
In the team’s publication in Icarus, the researchers write that these discoveries add to the uniqueness and mystery surrounding our strange, distant neighbor:
Pluto, the most distant object that humankind’s mechanical proxies have encountered to date, represents Nature’s laboratory for organic photochemistry at extremely low pressures and temperatures.
See, International Astronomical Union? Pluto doesn’t care what silly names you call it. It’s still gonna be there, doing it's thing, being Pluto. It might not be a planet anymore, but now it’s certainly looking a lot more interesting than those other lifeless balls of gas and whatnot.