Pluto (minor-planet designation: 134340 Pluto) is a dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt, a ring of bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. It was the first and the largest Kuiper belt object to be discovered. After Pluto was discovered in 1930, it was declared to be the ninth planet from the Sun. Beginning in the 1990s, its status as a planet was questioned following the discovery of several objects of similar size in the Kuiper belt and the scattered disc, including the dwarf planet Eris. This led the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006 to formally define the term planet excluding Pluto and reclassifying it as a dwarf planet.
Pluto is the ninth-largest and tenth-most-massive known object directly orbiting the Sun. It is the largest known trans-Neptunian object by volume but is less massive than Eris. Like other Kuiper belt objects, Pluto is primarily made of ice and rock and is relatively small—one-sixth the mass of the Moon and one-third its volume. It has a moderately eccentric and inclined orbit during which it ranges from 30 to 49 astronomical units or AU (4.4–7.4 billion km) from the Sun. This means that Pluto periodically comes closer to the Sun than Neptune, but a stable orbital resonance with Neptune prevents them from colliding. Light from the Sun takes 5.5 hours to reach Pluto at its average distance (39.5 AU).
Pluto has five known moons: Charon (the largest, with a diameter just over half that of Pluto), Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Pluto and Charon are sometimes considered a binary system because the barycenter of their orbits does not lie within either body.
The New Horizons spacecraft performed a flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015, becoming the first and, to date, only spacecraft to do so. During its brief flyby, New Horizons made detailed measurements and observations of Pluto and its moons. In September 2016, astronomers announced that the reddish-brown cap of the north pole of Charon is composed of tholins, organic macromolecules that may be ingredients for the emergence of life, and produced from methane, nitrogen and other gases released from the atmosphere of Pluto and transferred 19,000 km (12,000 mi) to the orbiting moon.
Pluto was discovered in 1930 near the star δ Geminorum, and merely coincidentally crossing the ecliptic at this time of discovery. Pluto moves about 7 degrees east per decade with small apparent retrograde motion as seen from Earth. Pluto was closer to the Sun than Neptune between 1979 and 1999.
Pluto’s orbital period is currently about 248 years. Its orbital characteristics are substantially different from those of the planets, which follow nearly circular orbits around the Sun close to a flat reference plane called the ecliptic. In contrast, Pluto’s orbit is moderately inclined relative to the ecliptic (over 17°) and moderately eccentric (elliptical). This eccentricity means a small region of Pluto’s orbit lies closer to the Sun than Neptune’s. The Pluto–Charon barycenter came to perihelion on September 5, 1989, and was last closer to the Sun than Neptune between February 7, 1979, and February 11, 1999.
Although the 3:2 resonance with Neptune (see below) is maintained, Pluto’s inclination and eccentricity behave in a chaotic manner. Computer simulations can be used to predict its position for several million years (both forward and backward in time), but after intervals much longer than the Lyapunov time of 10–20 million years, calculations become unreliable: Pluto is sensitive to immeasurably small details of the Solar System, hard-to-predict factors that will gradually change Pluto’s position in its orbit.
Pluto’s rotation period, its day, is equal to 6.387 Earth days. Like Uranus, Pluto rotates on its “side” in its orbital plane, with an axial tilt of 120°, and so its seasonal variation is extreme; at its solstices, one-fourth of its surface is in continuous daylight, whereas another fourth is in continuous darkness.The reason for this unusual orientation has been debated. Research from the University of Arizona has suggested that it may be due to the way that a body’s spin will always adjust to minimise energy. This could mean a body reorienting itself to put extraneous mass near the equator and regions lacking mass tend towards the poles. This is called polar wander. According to a paper released from the University of Arizona, this could be caused by masses of frozen nitrogen building up in shadowed areas of the dwarf planet. These masses would cause the body to reorient itself, leading to its unusual axial tilt of 120°. The buildup of nitrogen is due to Pluto’s vast distance from the Sun. At the equator, temperatures can drop to −240 °C (−400.0 °F; 33.1 K), causing nitrogen to freeze as water would freeze on Earth. The same effect seen on Pluto would be observed on Earth were the Antarctic ice sheet several times larger.
Pluto has a tenuous atmosphere consisting of nitrogen (N2), methane (CH4), and carbon monoxide (CO), which are in equilibrium with their ices on Pluto’s surface. According to the measurements by New Horizons, the surface pressure is about 1 Pa (10 μbar),roughly one million to 100,000 times less than Earth’s atmospheric pressure.
It was initially thought that, as Pluto moves away from the Sun, its atmosphere should gradually freeze onto the surface; studies of New Horizons data and ground-based occultations show that Pluto’s atmospheric density increases, and that it likely remains gaseous throughout Pluto’s orbit. New Horizons observations showed that atmospheric escape of nitrogen to be 10,000 times less than expected.Alan Stern has contended that even a small increase in Pluto’s surface temperature can lead to exponential increases in Pluto’s atmospheric density; from 18 hPa to as much as 280 hPa (three times that of Mars to a quarter that of the Earth). At such densities, nitrogen could flow across the surface as liquid.Just like sweat cools the body as it evaporates from the skin, the sublimation of Pluto’s atmosphere cools its surface.The presence of atmospheric gases was traced up to 1670 kilometers high; the atmosphere does not have a sharp upper boundary.
Pluto has five known natural satellites. The closest to Pluto is Charon. First identified in 1978 by astronomer James Christy, Charon is the only moon of Pluto that may be in hydrostatic equilibrium. Charon’s mass is sufficient to cause the barycenter of the Pluto–Charon system to be outside Pluto. Beyond Charon there are four much smaller circumbinary moons. In order of distance from Pluto they are Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Nix and Hydra were both discovered in 2005, Kerberos was discovered in 2011,and Styx was discovered in 2012.The satellites’ orbits are circular (eccentricity < 0.006) and coplanar with Pluto’s equator (inclination < 1°),and therefore tilted approximately 120° relative to Pluto’s orbit. The Plutonian system is highly compact: the five known satellites orbit within the inner 3% of the region where prograde orbits would be stable.
Pluto’s origin and identity had long puzzled astronomers. One early hypothesis was that Pluto was an escaped moon of Neptune knocked out of orbit by Neptune’s largest current moon, Triton. This idea was eventually rejected after dynamical studies showed it to be impossible because Pluto never approaches Neptune in its orbit.
Pluto’s true place in the Solar System began to reveal itself only in 1992, when astronomers began to find small icy objects beyond Neptune that were similar to Pluto not only in orbit but also in size and composition. This trans-Neptunian population is thought to be the source of many short-period comets. Pluto is now known to be the largest member of the Kuiper belt,a stable belt of objects located between 30 and 50 AU from the Sun. As of 2011, surveys of the Kuiper belt to magnitude 21 were nearly complete and any remaining Pluto-sized objects are expected to be beyond 100 AU from the Sun. Like other Kuiper-belt objects (KBOs), Pluto shares features with comets; for example, the solar wind is gradually blowing Pluto’s surface into space.It has been claimed that if Pluto were placed as near to the Sun as Earth, it would develop a tail, as comets do.This claim has been disputed with the argument that Pluto’s escape velocity is too high for this to happen. It has been proposed that Pluto may have formed as a result of the agglomeration of numerous comets and Kuiper-belt objects.