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Pluto: The former planet still fascinates and intrigues

Pluto with moons:  Charon, Nix and Hydra

Pluto with moons: Charon, Nix and Hydra

Fun Facts About Pluto


1. Pluto has an atmosphere

Even though Pluto’s average temperature averages a mere 44 degrees above absolute zero, the dwarf planet has an atmosphere. Not an atmosphere as we know it, but an atmosphere, none the less.

It was first discovered back in 1985, when astronomers watched as Pluto passed in front of a star. They were able to calculate a slight dimming as its atmosphere passed in front of the star, before Pluto itself blocked the star entirely. From those observations, they were able to calculate that it has a thin envelope of nitrogen, methane and carbon dioxide.

As Pluto moves away from the Sun, this atmosphere gets so cold that it freezes onto the surface. And then as the dwarf planet warms again, the atmosphere evaporates again, forming a gas around it.

2. Pluto has 3 moons

You might have heard that Pluto has a large moon called Charon, but did you know that it actually has 3 moons in total. Charon is the large one, with a mass of roughly half that of Pluto’s.

Two additional moons, Nix and Hydra, were discovered by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope on May 15, 2005. They were originally called S/2005 P1 and S/2005 P2, and then given their final names on June 21, 2006.

They took a long time to discover because they’re so tiny. Nix is only 46 km across, while Hydra is 61 km across.

3. Pluto hasn’t cleared out its orbit

Although Pluto orbits the Sun and it’s round, it’s not a planet. And that’s because Pluto hasn’t cleared out its orbit of material. This was the reason that the International Astronomical Union chose to demote it from planet to dwarf planet in 2006.

Just to give you an idea, if you added up the mass of all the other objects in Pluto’s orbit, Pluto’s mass would only be a tiny fraction of that total. In fact, it would only be 0.07 times as massive as everything else. For comparison, if you did the same thing with all the other material in the Earth’s orbit, our planet would be 1.5 million times as massive.

And that’s why Pluto’s not a planet.

4. Pluto is actually a binary system

You’d think that Charon orbits Pluto, but actually, Pluto and Charon orbit a common point in space. In the case of the Earth and the Moon, we actually orbit a common point, but that spot exists inside the Earth. In the case of Pluto and Charon, however, that common point is above the surface of Pluto.

Before Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet, astronomers were thinking of classifying it as a binary planet system. And then as a binary dwarf planet system. Perhaps that will help it recover some of its lost glory.

5. Pluto is named after a god, not a dog

If you think Pluto is named after a Disney character, you’re wrong. It’s actually named after the Roman god of the underworld. And Charon is the ferryman who carries souls across the river Styx.

When it was first discovered, Pluto was just given the name Planet X, but then the discoverers needed to come up with something better and more permanent. The name Pluto was suggested by Venetia Burney, an 11-year old school girl in Oxford, England. She thought it was a good name for such a cold, dark world. It was passed along to the discoverers and they liked it enough to make it official.

6. Pluto can be closer than Neptune

For most of its orbit, Pluto is more distant than Neptune, reaching out as far as 49 astronomical units (49 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun). But it has such an eccentric, elliptical orbit that it gets much closer, reaching a mere 29 AU. And during that time, it’s actually orbiting within the orbit of Neptune. The last time Pluto and Neptune made this switch was between February 7, 1979 and February 11, 1999. And give it another couple of hundred years and it’ll happen again.

7. Pluto is smaller than any planet, and even 7 moons

Pluto is small. How small? Astronomers recently calculated that its mass is 1.31 x 1022 kg (less than 0.24% the mass of Earth). And its diameter is only 2,390 km across.

At this point, it’s smaller than Mercury, and seven other moons including: Ganymede, Titan, Callisto, Io, Earth’s Moon, Europa, and Triton.

And now astronomers know that it’s even smaller than the recently discovered dwarf planet Eris. Here’s more information about how big Pluto is.

8. If it were closer to the Sun, Pluto would be a comet

Although this isn’t officially a reason for losing its planet status, Pluto wouldn’t last long if it got much closer to the Sun. It’s comprised of about half rock and half ice. This is a similar ratio to many rocky comets in the Solar System.

If you could somehow bring Pluto closer to the Sun, it would sprout a tail, becoming a spectacular comet. And over millions of years, the solar wind would blast away its icy structure, causing it to lose mass.

It’s lucky Pluto lives in such a cold, dark part of the Solar System.

9. Charon might have geysers

In the last few years, astronomers have discovered that several objects in the Solar System have ice geysers, including Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and maybe several others as well. But Pluto’s moon Charon could have this happening too.

Astronomers using the Gemini Observatory in Mauna Kea in Hawaii recently turned up evidence that geysers on Charon are spreading ammonia hydrates and water crystals across the surface of the moon.

Is this really happening? We’ll know soon, because… here’s the last Pluto fact.

10. There’s a spacecraft going to Pluto right now

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is making its way to Pluto right now. The spacecraft launched in 2005, and its expected to reach the dwarf planet in 2015. It will pass right through the system, imaging the surface of Pluto and its moons, and finally answering questions that have puzzled astronomers for nearly a hundred years.


Special thanks to www.universetoday.com

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The “Spruce Goose”: Howard Hughes’ Remarkable and Enigmatic Wooden Aircraft

The Hughes Flying Boat H-4 (HK-1) Hercules a.k.a. The "Spruce Goose"

The Hughes Flying Boat H-4 (HK-1) Hercules a.k.a. The "Spruce Goose"

Fun Facts About the Spruce Goose

Names: Hughes Flying Boat H-4 (HK-1) Hercules (“Spruce Goose”)

Description: The Hughes Flying Boat is a cargo-type seaplane designed to transport men and materials over long distances. This aircraft is of a single hull, eight-engine design, with a single vertical tail, fixed wing-tip floats, and full cantilever wing and tail surfaces. The entire airframe and surface structures are composed of laminated wood (primarily birch). All primary control surfaces except the flaps are fabric covered. The hull contains two areas: a flight deck for the operating crew and a large cargo deck. A circular stairway provides access between the two decks. Below the cargo deck are fuel bays divided by watertight bulkheads.

Largest wingspan: 319 feet, 11 inches with a wing area that covers 11,430 square feet
Features full cantilever wing and tail surfaces.

Tallest aircraft: 79 feet, 3 3/8 inches

Length: 218 fee 6 ¼ inches

Record setting: Largest seaplane and largest wooden aircraft: the entire airframe is composed of laminated wood. Primary control surfaces, except the flaps, are fabric-covered. The most reciprocating horsepower ever installed in an aircraft.

Power: Eight Pratt & Whitney R-4360, 3,000 horsepower engines

Propellers: Eight, 17 feet, 2 inch diameter

Weight, Empty:
 300,000 pounds

Weight, Loaded:
 400,000 pounds (maximum take-off weight)

Capacity: 750 troops or two Sherman tanks

Normal Crew:

First And Only Flight:
 November 2, 1947

Howard Hughes in the cockpit of the Spruce Goose

Howard Hughes in the cockpit of the Spruce Goose

Why built: In July 1942, the world was at war. America had just lost 800,000 tons of her supply ships to German U-boats. Henry Kaiser, famed industrialist and builder of “Liberty” ships, proposed a fleet of flying transports to safely move troops and material across the Atlantic. Kaiser approached Howard Hughes with his idea. Together they formed the Hughes Kaiser Corporation and obtained an $18,000,000 government contract to construct three flying boats.

Hughes and his team of skilled engineers designed a single hull flying boat capable of carrying 750 troops. The plans called for eight 3,000 horsepower engines, a mammoth fuel storage and supply system, and wings 20 feet longer than a football field. They called the prototype aircraft the HK-1, standing for the Hughes Kaiser design number one.

Delays and Constraints: Encountering and dealing with tremendous design and engineering problems, the Hughes team developed new concepts for large-scale hulls, flying control surfaces, and complex power boost systems. Hughes engineers created the first “artificial feel system” in the control yoke, which gave the pilot the feeling he was flying a smaller aircraft, but with a force multiplied two hundred times. For example, for each pound of pressure exerted on the control yoke by the pilot, the elevator received 1,500 pounds of pressure to move it.

The H-4 now resides at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, OR

The H-4 now resides at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, OR

Adhering to the government mandate not to use materials critical to the war effort (such as steel and aluminum), the Hughes team constructed the Flying Boat out of wood. Hughes perfected a process called “Duramold” to create almost every part of the plane. Originally developed by Fairchild Aircraft Company, Howard Hughes purchased the rights to use Duramold in large aircraft. The Duramold process is a plywood-like series of thin wood laminations, with grains laid perpendicular to each other. Workers permeating the laminations with plastic glue, then they shaped and heated the pieces until cured. The result is a material that many engineers agree is both lighter and stronger than aluminum.

All of the research and development that went into the new seaplane delayed the construction process. In mid 1944, Henry Kaiser withdrew from the project, and Hughes took personal responsibility for all facets of the flying boat’s design and production. He renamed the gigantic seaplane H-4, representing his aircraft company’s fourth design.

After the war’s end in 1945, criticism of the project mounted. The Flying Boat prototype had exceeded the government’s funding allowance and the U.S. Senate formed an investigation committee to probe alleged misappropriation of funds. Hughes invested $7,000,000 of his own into the project to keep it going. While Hughes testified before the investigative committee in Washington, D.C., the Hughes team assembled the Flying Boat in the Long Beach dry dock. After his interrogation, Hughes was determined to demonstrate the capability of his Flying Boat. He returned to California and immediately ordered the seaplane readied for taxi tests.

Proof of Concept: On November 2, 1947, a crowd of expectant observers and newsmen gathered. With Hughes at the controls, the giant Flying Boat glided smoothly across a three-mile stretch of harbor. From 35 miles per hour, it cruised to 90 during the second taxi test when eager newsmen began filing their stories. During the third taxi test Hughes surprised everyone as he ordered the wing flaps lowered to 15 degrees and the seaplane lifted off the water. He flew her for a little over a mile at an altitude of 70 feet for approximately one minute. The short hop proved to skeptics that the gigantic craft could fly!


Special thanks to www.sprucegoose.org

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