Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pluto's Atmosphere Found Poisonous and Surprisingly High

Poisonous carbon monoxide gas has been discovered in the atmosphere of the dwarf planet Pluto, after a worldwide search that lasted nearly two decades, according to a new study that also detected the planet's atmosphere extending much higher above the surface than previously thought. A British-based team of astronomers, led by Jane Greaves of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, found a strong signal of carbon monoxide gas in Pluto's atmosphere using the 15-meter James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii.

The atmosphere of Pluto was known to extend more than 60 miles (about 100 kilometers) above the surface, the researchers said, but the new findings raise that height to more than 1,860 miles equivalent to a quarter of the distance out to Pluto's largest moon, Charon.

Greaves will present the new discovery on Wednesday (April 20) at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting in Wales. Pluto was discovered in 1930 and was considered to be the smallest and most distant planet orbiting around the sun. In 2006, its status was demoted to dwarf planet, making it one of a handful of such bodies that orbit beyond Neptune in the outer reaches of the solar system.

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