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Pluto bright spots prove the planet's not done surprising us

It was once the ninth planet, but today the best-known dwarf planet in the galaxy is proving it's a giant when it comes to surprising discoveries.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
3 min read
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Gladstone et al./Science (2016)

Pluto continues to show us its demotion from our solar system's ninth planet to just another dwarf planet may be one of the greatest insults the galaxy has ever seen.

On Tuesday, researchers working with data from the New Horizons spacecraft that flew by Pluto in 2015 said space beyond Neptune just continues to be more fascinating the closer we look.

We already knew Pluto may be hiding an ocean, nuclear ice volcanoes and blue skies, but now we can add to that list one of the brightest spots in the solar system, clouds like we're used to on Earth and landslides on Pluto's moon Charon.

The more we learn, the less Pluto seems like a distant, boring rock forever frozen in time.

In fact, NASA's Bonnie Buratti told reporters at an American Astronomical Society conference that the discovery of a highly reflective bright spot on the surface of Pluto could indicate quite the opposite is true.

9 crazy things we learned about Pluto in the past year

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"That brightness indicates surface activity," she explained, adding it's possible there could be things going on that are similar to what's been observed on Saturn's moon Enceladus, which is home to huge plumes apparently shooting some of the contents of a subsurface ocean into space.

Pluto's brightest spots reflect 100 percent of light, making them among the most reflective spots observed.

That light may need to fight its way through cloud cover to reach the surface of Pluto at times. New Horizons lead investigator Alan Stern presented evidence from the data that points to the possible presence of clouds from condensation that form around dawn and dusk.

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Seven images from New Horizons that suggest the possible presence of clouds.

ASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Haze has already been observed above Pluto, and though we can't yet confirm there are clouds there, the suggestion just adds to the case that the former planet is worth a closer look.

"If there are clouds, it would mean the weather on Pluto is even more complex than we imagined," Stern said.

Pluto's moon Charon has also continued to yield new secrets about itself as the data has rolled in. The latest is that landslides are possible on the distant satellite, but are absent from Pluto's surface.

"We've seen similar landslides on other rocky and icy planets, such as Mars and Saturn's moon Iapetus, but these are the first landslides we've seen this far from the sun, in the Kuiper Belt," said Ross Beyer from the Sagan Center at the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center.

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Evidence of landslides on Pluto's moon Charon.

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Next up for New Horizons is a stop at a Kuiper Belt object named 2014 MU69 in 2019, which was revealed on Tuesday to be even redder than Pluto, but not quite as red as Mars.

Turns out that even in its deepest, darkest reaches, our solar system is still pretty colorful.

But Stern wants to take another stab at Pluto. Multiple times during the press conference, the New Horizons leader mentioned how useful it could be to send an orbiter to the Pluto system.

It took New Horizons nearly a decade to make it to Pluto. Stern offered optimistically that a nuclear-powered orbiter launched via NASA's planned Space Launch System could make it to the former planet in just 7.5 years time. Clearly, some scientists think the dwarf planet is still hiding some giant discoveries that are worth a second trip.