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February 4, 2010

NASA: Pluto is 'not simply a ball of ice and rock'

Posted: 03:19 PM ET

NASA released new photos today of everyone's favorite former planet: Pluto.

The space agency says the photos, which were taken in the early 2000s by the Hubble Space Telescope, are the "most detailed and dramatic images ever taken of the distant dwarf planet."

"The Hubble pictures confirm Pluto is a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes not simply a ball of ice and rock," NASA says in a news release.

But the new glamour shots won't be enough to get Pluto registered again as a planet.

The pictures come just as Pluto is heading into a new phase of its 248-year orbit around the sun, NASA says:

Pluto is unlike Earth, where the planet's tilt alone drives seasons. Pluto's seasons are asymmetric because of its elliptical orbit. Spring transitions to polar summer quickly in the northern hemisphere, because Pluto is moving faster along its orbit when it is closer to the Sun. says new colors and features of Pluto came to light in the photos:

The surface appears reddish, yellowish, grayish in places, with a mysterious bright spot that is particularly puzzling to scientists.

Some of the colors revealed in the new pictures of Pluto are thought to result from ultraviolet radiation from the sun interacting with methane in the tenuous atmosphere of the dwarf planet. The bright spot apparent near the equator has been found in other observations to be unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost.

Pluto lost its status as our solar system's ninth planet in 2006 when an international group of scientists decided that it was too small and too distant to be considered a member of the Earth's solar-system family.

More from the National Academies:

Pluto is considerably smaller and more distant than the other planets in our solar system. Two-thirds the size of Earth's moon, Pluto's classification as a planet came under scrutiny when many objects of similar size and distance were discovered in the Kuiper Belt in the 1990s.

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Filed under: NASA • Space

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Matt   February 6th, 2010 9:43 am ET

Graham- Clyde Tambaugh discovered pluto, not whatever quackpot astronomer you think did. Even wikipedia, though i shudder to use it, knows that. Also, for all of you complainers- Scientists say that pluto is not a planet so it is not. They are the experts in the field who have studied this for god only knows how many years. Why don't you give them a little respect and credibility? For god shake, they probably have been doing this longer and have more education than some of the medical doctors you go to, yet you trust them blindly...

my goodness   February 6th, 2010 12:18 pm ET

If it revolves our sun it's part of our solar system. Bring it back in.

JJ   February 7th, 2010 11:28 am ET

They should send a new probe there, with a hi-def video cam. It should arrive in 2070. I will be on the edge of my seat until then.

Abhishek Kylasa   February 8th, 2010 1:04 am ET

You're wrong. Objects bigger than Pluto were discovered. It was either 10 planets or eight. Scientists didn't want too many planets, so they made a new definition for planet that took away Pluto's special status. The object that was bigger than Pluto is Eris. It has one moon, Dysnomia. It was discovered more than five years ago and is 3x farther away from the Sun than Pluto is. There are also a lot of other Kuiper Belt objects that are about one-third of Pluto's size. If Pluto was renamed a planet, then Eris would have to be recognized as one, and possibly the other smaller Kuiper Belt objects. Also, the revised planet definition said that planets are spherical (Pluto passes), planets orbit around the Sun and stuff, and that smaller planets don't cross the orbits of larger planets.

mkb   February 8th, 2010 11:45 am ET

forget about pluto.people seem to be forgetting that we do not know majority of the things going on in the universe that is more than enough to leave us smacking our heads for the rest of our lives.the pluto "issue" is just ....trivial.

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