Origin Of Pluto And Its Moons

Before the discovery of Charon, it was popular to assume that Pluto was a former moon of Neptune that had somehow escaped its orbit. This idea gained support from the apparent similarity of the dimensions of Pluto and Triton and the near coincidence in Triton's orbital period (5.9 days) and Pluto's rotation period (6.4 days). It was suggested that a close encounter between these two bodies when they were both moons led to the ejection of Pluto from the Neptunian system and caused Triton to assume the retrograde orbit that is presently observed.

Astronomers found it difficult to establish the likelihood that all these events would have occurred, and the discovery of Charon provided information that further refuted the theory. Because the revised mass of Pluto is only half that of Triton, Pluto clearly could not have caused the reversal of Triton's orbit. Also, the fact that Pluto has a proportionally large moon of its own makes the escape idea implausible. Current thinking favours the idea that Pluto and Charon instead formed as two independent bodies in the solar nebula, the gaseous cloud from which the solar system condensed. Just as the Moon appears to be deficient in volatile elements relative to Earth as a consequence of its high-temperature origin, so also can the absence of methane on Charon, along with the relatively high densities of both Pluto and Charon, be explained by a similar process.

Astronomers have argued that Pluto's two small moons also are products of the same collision that resulted in the present Charon. The alternative scenario—that they formed independently elsewhere in the outer solar system and were later gravitationally captured by the Pluto-Charon system— does not appear likely given the combination of circular coplanar orbits and multiple dynamic resonances that currently exist for the two small bodies and Charon. Rather, these conditions suggest that material in the ring of debris that was ejected from the collision accreted into all three moons—and possibly into others yet to be found.

This collision scenario implies that at the time the Pluto-Charon system formed, about 4.6 billion years ago, the outer solar nebula contained many icy bodies with the same approximate dimensions as these two. The bodies themselves are thought to have been built up from smaller entities that today would be recognized as the nuclei of comets.

Most of these icy planetesimals were incorporated into the cores of the giant planets during their formation. Many others, however, are thought to have remained as the unconsolidated debris that makes up the Kuiper Belt, which includes the outer part of Pluto's orbit. After more than 1,000 Kuiper Belt objects

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