NASA was recently able to uncover a mystery of how a blue haze forms in Pluto’s atmosphere, and it was all thanks to an airplane-mounted telescope.
Called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the nine-foot high-tech telescope is connected to a Boeing 747 plane. This unique setup allowed the governmental space agency to get a closer look at the mysterious haze and finally understand how it forms. The result? It’s made up of tiny particles that float in the air for long periods. They do fall back to the surface, but only after another set of particles have reached the atmosphere.
“The haze thickens and then fades in a cycle lasting just a few years,” NASA stated. “This indicates that the tiny particles are being created relatively quickly. The researchers suggest that Pluto’s unusual orbit is driving the changes in the haze and therefore may be more important in regulating its atmosphere than its distance from the Sun.”
The particles are floating into the atmosphere because the ice on the planet’s surface is evaporating when sunlight hits it. And the reason for its blue hue is thanks to the small size of the particle. They only measure 0.06 to 0.10 microns thick, which is 1,000 times smaller than the width of human hair. This makes the particles reflect more blue light creating that mysterious blue haze around Pluto.
“There had been hints in earlier remote observations that there might be haze, but there wasn’t strong evidence to confirm it really existed until the data came from SOFIA,” said lead researcher Michael Person of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Wallace Astrophysical Observatory in a statement. “Now we’re questioning if Pluto’s atmosphere is going to collapse in the coming years – it may be more resilient than we thought.”