Pictures of Pluto suggest 1930s Irish astronomer was right all along
These incredible photographs of Pluto are a testament to the fantastic potential of the human race.
A closer look at the images suggest that an Irish astronomer might have had the right idea about the (dwarf) planet – and the far reaches of our solar system – right from the start.
Pluto was discovered in 1930 and as far back in 1938, Kenneth Edgeworth suggested that it was too small to be a planet.
The Irishman, who worked at Daramona House, Co Westmeath, said that it was the first celestial body in a third zone of our solar system – following the rocky planets in the inner section and the gas giants in the outer section.
In the 1950s, Dutch-American astronomer Gerald Kuiper worked on Edgeworth’s idea. The third zone became known as the Edgeworth- Kuiper belt – although over time this has been shortened to the Kuiper belt.
In 2006, Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet following work from Dr Mike Brown at the California Institute of Technology – much to the dismay of a number of people across the world who seemed to have become quite attached to the smallest known planet in our solar system.
However, thousands of other celestial bodies had been discovered in the ‘third zone’ and as they were deemed ‘dwarf planets’ then Pluto’s status as a planet came under threat.
Dr Alan Stern, who was principal investigator of Nasa’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, said: “Kenneth Edgeworth probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves. In 1943 and 1949 he had papers that were brilliant. He nailed it.”
The images of Pluto that have been sent back to Earth support what Edgeworth had said all those years ago.
Pluto has mountains taller than the Pyrenees and gorges three times deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Its bedrock is made of water-ice. The only way that the mountains and gorges could have formed is if the bedrock had been melted in the geologically recent past.
It has blown away the theories that have stood for decades about icy worlds that lie beyond the gas giants of our solar system.
They were believed to have been cold and lifeless places. However, the new photos reveal that there must be some source of internal heat
Dr John Spencer of Southwest Research Institute said: “This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds.”
Dr Stern said: “We have settled the fact that these very small planets can be very active after a long time, and I think it is going to send a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing- boards to try to understand how exactly you do that.”
It is possible that there may be liquid water beneath the surface, which opens the possibility of life evolving as far away from the sun as the third zone of the solar system.
Dr Stern added that it is likely that NASA will name some of the newly discovered features of Pluto’s surface after Edgeworth.