Our solar system’s shadowy ninth (dwarf) planet was the subject of furious speculation and a frantic search for almost a century before it was finally discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. And remarkably, Pluto’s reality was deduced using a heady array of reasoning, observation and no small amount of imagination.
The 18th and 19th centuries were thick with astronomical discoveries; not least were the planets Uranus and Neptune. The latter, in particular, was predicted by comparing observed perturbations in the orbit of Uranus to what was expected. This suggested the gravitational influence of another nearby planet.
John Couch Adams and Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier calculated the orbit of Neptune by comparing these perturbations in Uranus’ orbit to those of the other seven known planets. Neptune was hence discovered in the predicted location in 1846.
Soon after this, French physicist Jacques Babinet proposed the existence of an even more distant planet, which he named Hyperion. Le Verrier wasn’t convinced, stating that there was “absolutely nothing by which one could determine the position of another planet, barring hypotheses in which imagination played too large a part”.
Despite that lack of evidence for perturbations in Neptune’s orbit, many predicted the existence of a ninth planet over the next 80 years. Frenchman Gabriel Dallet called it “Planet X” in 1892 and 1901, and the famed American astronomer William Henry Pickering proposed “Planet O” in 1908.
In addition to the perturbations of known planets there were other hypotheses that foretold unknown bodies beyond Neptune.
In the 19th century, it was understood that many comets had highly elliptical orbits that swung past the outer planets at their farthest points from the sun. It was believed that these planets diverted the comets into their eccentric orbits.
In 1879 the French astronomer Camille Flammarion predicted a planet with an orbit 24 times that of Earth’s based on comet measurements. Using the same method, George Forbes, professor of astronomy at Glasgow University, confidently announced in 1880 that “two planets exist beyond the orbit of Neptune, one about 100 times, the other about 300 times the distance of the earth from the sun”.
Depending on how the calculations were done, the results predicted anything from one to four planets.
Other predictions were based on what can be described as numerical curiosities or speculations. One of these was the now-discredited Bode’s law, a sort of Fibonacci sequence for planets. The American mathematician Benjamin Pierce was not a fan, claiming that “fractions which express the law of vegetable growth” were more accurate than Bode’s law.
As well as these earnest astronomers, the trans-Neptunian planet idea attracted cranks and visionaries. An interesting contribution came in 1875 from Count Oskar Reichenbach, who accused Le Verrier and Adams of conspiring to conceal the locations of two trans-Neptunian planets.
Theories and calculations were all well and good, but many hoped to actually see the hitherto invisible planet(s). From the late 1800s new powerful telescopes equipped with the latest dry-plate photographic technologies were employed to search for undiscovered planets.
Amateur astronomers such Isaac Roberts and William Edwards Wilson used the predictions of George Forbes to search the skies, taking many hundreds of photographic plates in the process. They found no lurking trans-Neptunian planets.
The professionals fared no better. Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory and William’s brother, spent around ten years from 1900 searching using his own data and those of earlier astronomers such as Dallet, all to no avail.
In 1906 a new approach was introduced by the veteran astronomer Percival Lowell. Although best known to us for his (mistaken) observations of canals on Mars, Lowell bought a new rigour to analysing the orbit of Uranus based on observational data from 1750 to 1903.
With these improved calculations, hope for a visual fix on the elusive planet was renewed. With the aid of the brothers Vesto and Earl Slipher, Lowell spend the rest of his life scanning photographic plates with a hand magnifier and finally with a Zeiss blink comparator.
In September 1919 William Pickering kicked off another search for “Planet O” based on deviations in Neptune’s orbit. Milton L Humason, from the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, started a search based on these new predictions as well as Lowell’s and Pickering’s 1909 predictions. This search again failed to find any new planets. Pickering continued to publish articles on hypothetical planets but by 1928 he had become discouraged.
As part of Lowell’s legacy, the Lowell Observatory built a special astrographic telescope. It was completed in 1929, and under Vesto Slipher’s direction, a young assistant was assigned to take and examine the photographs of the farthest reaches of the solar system. His name was Clyde Tombaugh.
This was grim, unglamorous work. Each plate was exposed for an hour or more, with Tombaugh adjusting the telescope precisely to keep pace with the slowly turning sky. Today a computer would make the comparisons, but in 1929 they were made by eye, manually flicking between two images. Stars would remain motionless while other bodies would seem to jump between views. Some images would have 40,000 stars, others up to 1 million.
Nearly a year had elapsed when, on February 18, 1930, two images fifteen times fainter than Neptune were found among 160,000 stars on the photographic plates. The discovery was confirmed by examining earlier images. On February 20 the planet was observed to be yellowish, rather than bluish like Neptune. The new planet had revealed its true colours at last.
Slipher waited until March 13 to announce the discovery. This was both Lowell’s birthday and the anniversary date of the discovery of Uranus. The announcement set off a worldwide rush to observe and photograph the new planet.
Now that astronomers, amateur and professional alike, knew what they were looking for, it turned out that Pluto had been hiding in plain view. Re-examination of Humanson’s plates showed four images of Pluto from his 1919 survey, and there were many others.
On March 14, an Oxford librarian read the news to his 11-year old granddaughter Venetia Burney, who suggested the name Pluto. It was also suggested independently in a letter by William Henry Pickering.
To complete the circle, some of Clyde Tombaugh’s remains are in a canister attached to the New Horizons spacecraft.
Most people alive today would not remember a universe without Pluto. And from 2015, its patterned surface will enter our visual vocabulary of the planets. Once seen, it can never again be unseen. Planet X, welcome to our world.
Now, as Pluto retreats into the distance, the slow trickle of data can begin. Sent to us at a rate of just 1 kilobit a second, it will take months to receive it all, and astronomers around the world are waiting on tenterhooks to get their hands on the data.
Like our own Earth, Pluto has an oversized satellite, Charon. It was discovered back in 1978 and is more than half the diameter of its parent.
But how did this satellite system come to be? And why the striking similarity to our double-planet?
If we look at the great majority of satellites in our solar system we find that they can be split into two groups. First, have those that we think formed around their host planet like miniature planetary systems, mimicking the process of planet formation itself.
These regular satellites most likely accreted from disks of material around the giant planets as those planets gobbled up material from the proto-planetary disk from which they formed. This explains the orbits of those satellites – perfectly aligned with the equator of their hosts and moving on circular orbits.
Then we have the irregular satellites. These are (with a couple of noteworthy exceptions) tiny objects, and move on a wide variety of orbits that are typically great distances from their host planets.
These, too, are easily explained – thought to be captured from the debris moving around the solar system late in its formation, relics of the swarm of minor bodies from which the planets formed.
By contrast, our moon and Pluto’s Charon are far harder to explain. Their huge size, relative to their host, argues against their forming like the regular satellites. Likewise, their orbits are tilted both to the plane of the equator and to the plane of the host body’s orbit around the sun. It also seems very unlikely they were captured – that just doesn’t fit with our observations.
The answer to this conundrum, in both cases, is violent.
Like our moon, Charon (and by extension Pluto’s other satellites) are thought to have been born in a giant collision, so vast that it tore their host asunder. This model does a remarkable job of explaining the makeup of our own moon, and fits what we know (so far) about Pluto and its satellites.
Pluto and its moons will therefore be the second shattered satellite system we’ve seen up close, and the results from New Horizons will be key to interpreting their formation.
Studying the similarities and differences between Pluto and Charon will teach us a huge amount about that ancient cataclysmic collision. We already know that Pluto and Charon are different colours, but the differences likely run deeper.
If Pluto was differentiated at the time of impact (in other words, if it had a core, mantle and crust, like the Earth) then Charon should be mostly comprised of material from the crust and mantle (like our moon). So it will be less dense and chemically different to Pluto. The same goes for Pluto’s other moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.
The most exciting discoveries from New Horizons will likely be those we can’t predict. Every time we visit somewhere new, the unexpected discoveries are often the most scientifically valuable.
When we first visited Jupiter, 36 years ago, we found that its moon Io was a volcanic hell-scape. We also found that Europa hosts a salty ocean, buried beneath a thick ice cap. Both of these findings were utterly unexpected.
At Saturn, we found the satellite Mimas looked like the Death Star and another, Iapetus, like a two tone cricket ball, complete with a seam. Uranus had a satellite, Miranda, that looked like it had been shattered and reassembled many times over, while Neptune’s moon Triton turned out to be dotted with cryo-volcanoes that spew ice instead of lava.
The story continues for the solar system’s smaller bodies. The asteroid Ida, visited by Galileo on its way to Jupiter, has a tiny moon, Dactyl. Ceres, the dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, has astonishingly reflective bright spots upon its surface.
Pluto, too, will have many surprises in store. There have already been a few, including the heart visible in the latest images (see top) – possibly the most eye catching feature to date. The best is doubtless still to come.
Despite the difficulties posed by being more than four and a half billion kilometres from home, New Horizons is certain to revolutionise our understanding of the Pluto system.
The data it obtains will shed new light on the puzzle of our solar system’s formation and evolution, and provide our first detailed images of one of the system’s most enigmatic objects.
But the story doesn’t end there. Once Pluto recedes into the distance, New Horizons will continue to do exciting research. The craft has a limited amount of fuel remaining, nowhere near enough to turn drastically, but enough to nudge it towards another one or two conveniently placed targets.
Since the launch of New Horizons, astronomers have been searching for suitable targets for it to visit as it hurtles outward through the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, en-route to the stars.
In October 2014, as a result of that search, three potential targets were identified. Follow up observations of those objects narrowed the list of possible destinations to two, known as 2014 MU69 (the favoured target) and 2014 PN70.
The final decision on which target to aim for will be taken after New Horizons has left Pluto far behind, but we can expect to keep hearing about the spacecraft for years to come.
What an amazing time for space exploration. The picture of the solar system from my childhood is now complete, as seen in this great family portrait produced by Ben Gross, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and distributed via twitter.
I love this image because it shows each world in close-up, using some of the latest pictures from space exploration. As we celebrate seeing Pluto for the first time, it’s remarkable to think that this completes a 50 year task.
It has been NASA that has provided the first close-up views of all these worlds. Here’s the rundown:
But science never stays still. When New Horizons left Earth…
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