An Occultation By Pluto

The atmosphere of Pluto might also be detected using eclipses: eclipses of the third kind, starlight being used to probe its properties. If this little body has any atmosphere, then one would expect it to be most abundant when near perihelion, because the increased solar heating may cause any volatile ices to sublimate. Pluto's composition seems to comprise about 70 percent rock and 30 percent ices. The latter would be mostly water ice, but also other highly volatile solid materials like carbon monoxide, nitrogen and methane, which could form a temporary atmosphere whenever Pluto makes its nearest approach to the Sun, albeit at a distance of over 29 astronomical units.

Pluto was near perihelion in the late 1980s, and again fortune blessed astronomers interested in this little planet. In June 1988 it passed over a relatively bright star, making occultation observations feasible. The gradual dimming of the starlight before and after total obscuration allowed Pluto's tenuous atmosphere to be fathomed. There is another reason for any space mission to Pluto to be an express: as it recedes from the Sun, that atmosphere will freeze once more, leaving the planet naked for the next two centuries.

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