X-ray mystery shrouds Pluto | Science News

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X-ray mystery shrouds Pluto

Despite wrong conditions, handful-plus of photons detected streaming from dwarf planet

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6:00am, November 7, 2016
Pluto

X-RAY SURPRISE An unexpected trickle of X-rays (blue) surrounds Pluto, possibly from a tail of gas dragging behind the dwarf planet.

X-rays appear to be trickling away from Pluto, even though the dwarf planet has no obvious way of making the high-energy photons, a new study reports.

Given what researchers have learned about Pluto since the New Horizons spacecraft flew by in 2015 (SN: 8/8/15, p. 6), the discovery is surprising. For many planets and comets, X-rays are generated when the solar wind, a stream of charged particles from the sun, runs into neutral gas atoms or magnetic fields from these bodies. But the environment around Pluto isn’t conducive to producing X-rays: the dwarf planet has no measurable magnetic field, its atmosphere is very thin, and it’s losing that atmosphere at rates much lower than expected.

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