Why it’s good news that Pluto doesn’t have rings

New Horizons’ next destination might be ring-free, too, promising a safe passage for the spacecraft

hazy Pluto

LOOKING BACK  New Horizons took this rearview image of Pluto’s hazy atmosphere after flying past the dwarf planet in July 2015. The spacecraft’s team was also looking for rings, but didn’t find any.

Southwest Research Institute/JHUAPL/NASA

Pluto has no rings — New Horizons triple-checked. An exhaustive search for rings and dust particles around the dwarf planet before, during and after the spacecraft flew past Pluto in 2015 has come up empty.

“It’s a very long paper to say we didn’t find anything,” says team member Tod Lauer of the analysis, posted online September 23 at arXiv.org. But the nonresult could help scientists understand the contents of the outer solar system — and help plan New Horizons’ next encounter. The spacecraft is now on a course to a space rock in the Kuiper Belt, another 1.5 billion kilometers past Pluto.

Before New Horizons arrived at Pluto, the possible existence of rings was an urgent matter of safety. Hitting a particle as small as a sand grain could have damaged the spacecraft.

Searches with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2011 and 2012 turned up two previously unknown moons orbiting Pluto — Kerberos and Styx (SN: 11/28/15, p. 14) — and zero rings. Even so, many researchers expected to encounter rings, or at least some debris. The four outer planets in the solar system have rings, as do other small bodies in the solar system, like the tiny planetoid 10199 Chariklo (SN: 5/3/14, p. 10). And some studies suggest that Pluto probably had rings at one point in its past, left over from the collision that formed its largest moon, Charon.

Nine weeks before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, a team jokingly called the “crow’s nest” acted much like a ship’s lookout for potential hazards, says Lauer, an astronomer with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz. The group examined images taken with the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager camera, looking for ring particles reflecting sunlight or spots that moved against a starry background from one set of images to the next. Nothing turned up.

The team declared the spacecraft’s trajectory safe, and New Horizons flew sailed safely past Pluto on July 14, 2015 (SN Online: 7/15/15). After the flyby, the team turned New Horizons around to look back at Pluto, and towards the sun. This was a much better position to look for rings, as dust particles would pop into view when backlit by the sun like motes of dust in the light from a window.

“If you really want to know for sure whether there’s any dust there, the viewing geometries where you’re looking past the dust with the sun in the background, that’s the gold standard,” says Matthew Tiscareno of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who studied Saturn’s rings with the Cassini spacecraft but was not involved in New Horizons.

It took the better part of a year for all the data from New Horizons to return to Earth, and several months after that to analyze it, but the team is now ready to call it: The rings really aren’t there — or at least they’re too diffuse to see.

That’s somewhat surprising, Lauer says. But the chaotic gravity of Pluto’s family of moons might make it too hard for rings to find stable orbits. Or the slight pressure generated by light particles streaming from the sun could constantly blow would-be ring particles away.

It’s also possible there just wasn’t that much dust there to begin with. New Horizons saw fewer craters on Pluto and Charon than expected, which could mean there are fewer small bodies at that distance from the sun smacking into Pluto and its moons and kicking up dust.

That could be good news for New Horizons’ next act. After five months in hibernation, the spacecraft woke up on September 11 and has set its sights on a smaller, weirder and more distant object: a space rock about 30 kilometers long called 2014 MU69 (SN Online: 7/20/17). Initial observations suggest it might be a double object, with two bodies orbiting closely or touching lightly.

New Horizons will fly past MU69 on January 1, 2019. In the meantime, the team is looking for hazards along the route. “We’re going to do a similar effort to what we did with Pluto,” Lauer says. “We’re going to get in the crow’s nest and get out our binoculars, as it were, and see if we’re going to be okay.”

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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