The solar system object Pluto was first sighted by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (1906–1997) in February 1930 from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. An extra planet had been predicted by Percival Lowell (1855–1916), after whom the observatory was named.
Declared the ninth planet, the name Pluto was suggested by 11-year-old English schoolgirl Venetia Burney (1918–2009), because in Greek mythology Pluto was the ruler of the underworld, a cold dark place devoid of sunlight. The first two letters are also Lowell’s initials.
However, Lowell had grossly over-estimated the size of his extra planet. He thought it would be six times more massive than Earth, but now we know it’s only 1/5th of the mass of our moon, in turn 1/500th of Earth’s mass.1
Then, from 1992 on, astronomers discovered many objects orbiting the Sun in the same area as Pluto, i.e. beyond Neptune in a space called the Kuiper Belt.2 Some of these objects rivalled Pluto in size. In 2005, astronomers discovered Eris, which has a mass 27% more than Pluto’s, although it is slightly smaller in volume. So this was even suggested as a tenth planet. Finally, in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) somewhat controversially demoted Pluto from being the ninth planet, and classified it and Eris in a new category of solar-system objects called ‘dwarf planets’.
These are objects that have sufficient size/mass for their gravity to pull the object into a near-spherical shape, but are too small to clear their orbit of smaller objects. Planets, on the other hand, gravitationally pull some of the objects in their orbit into themselves and fling others permanently out of the way. Smaller bodies, such as asteroids, usually have an irregular shape.
The new Pluto
On 14 July 2015, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons flew past Pluto and its moons after a 9½-year, 4.8-billion–km (3-billion–mile) journey from Earth. The images sent back show a world with an astonishing range of features, including mountains which may be volcanic, areas with some impact craters, a huge flat area with no impact craters at all, dark areas yet to be identified, and blue skies indicating an atmosphere.
Many of these features have been described as ‘puzzling’, because contrary to evolutionists’ expectations, they make Pluto ‘look young’! This is because they require it to still be, or have recently been, geologically active. But this should not be possible for an object of Pluto’s small size. Smaller objects cool off more rapidly, and if the solar system really were the assumed 4.5 billion years old, Pluto would have been ‘cold and dead’ long ago.
Pluto’s mountains of ice
Pluto has long been believed to have a rocky core, consistent with its overall density plus evolutionary ideas of how it formed. It is now thought that the core is surrounded by water ice and frozen nitrogen, together with an abundance of frozen methane and frozen carbon monoxide coating the surface. A mountain range 3.35 km (2.1 miles) high (rivalling the North American Rockies), and another 1.6 km (1 mile) high, appear to be made of water ice. At Pluto’s frigid temperature of -235º C (-390º F), ice is as hard as rock,3 so it would have taken a lot of energy for them to have been thrust up so high. But NASA says they are less than 2% of Pluto’s supposed evolutionary age—which would have them forming at a time when Pluto should have been long since geologically ‘dead’.4
Two other ice mountain areas on Pluto look somewhat similar to volcanoes on Earth, leading scientists to suggest that in their past, these Pluto mountains may have ejected a slurry of water ice with liquid nitrogen, ammonia, or methane,5 rather than molten rock as on Earth.
Counting impact craters is one method used to assign relative ages—the more craters, the longer it would have taken to form them (assuming the meteorites and asteroids that formed the craters didn’t all arrive in concentrated showers). NASA scientists have counted over 1,000 impact craters on Pluto that vary greatly in size and appearance, leading them to claim that Pluto must be billions of years old. However, there is one large heart-shaped area called Sputnik Planum that is completely unblemished by meteorite impacts.
This is a huge problem for the evolutionary belief that the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. Amazed comments have ranged from: “a vast craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old”,6 to “This could be only a week old, for all we know.”7 So scientists have suggested that the craterless plain must have been renewed by a heat source; but if so, what?
Not from its original formation. Pluto is so small that any primordial heat should have dissipated into space long ago, if it were billions of years old. Since it orbits ~6 billion km (~4 billion miles) from the sun, its surface temperature is about -230º C (~ -380º F)! This is below the freezing point of all gases, except neon, hydrogen, and helium.
The density of Pluto (38% of Earth’s) is too small to allow for the heavy long-lived radioactive elements to provide heat for billions of years.
Pluto is not near enough to any other object large enough to cause tidal effects within Pluto and so raise its temperature.
If the interior of Pluto were warm enough to erode the surface, then the mountains of ice on Pluto should have melted long ago.
Pluto has a thin hazy atmosphere extending out about 1,600 km (1,000 miles). It consists of ~98% nitrogen (cf. 78% on Earth), with small amounts of methane and carbon monoxide. This was shown as a blue (from small particles scattering sunlight8) ring surrounding Pluto, after New Horizonshad passed and then ‘looked back’ to photograph the sun’s light passing through this atmosphere as an eclipse.
Pluto’s low gravity (about 7% of Earth’s), coupled with heating by ultraviolet light from the sun, allows hundreds of tonnes of Pluto’s atmospheric nitrogen to escape into space each hour. So how, after the alleged billions of years, does it still have an atmosphere of mostly nitrogen? Scientists have speculated that the nitrogen is being ‘resupplied’ from relatively recent geological activity within Pluto itself.9 But as noted here and in our earlier article10 on this object, this does not solve the problem for long-agers, since an ‘old’ Pluto should have long ago ‘cooled off’.
Pluto has five known moons; the largest and closest is Charon, at 1,207 km (750 miles) in diameter, about half the size of Pluto. It is the largest satellite relative to its planet in the solar system. Its mean distance from Pluto is just 19,600 km (12,180 miles)—cf. Earth’s moon at 382,500 km (237,675 miles). Because of their closeness, Pluto and Charon orbit a mutual centre of mass between them, a point in space known as a barycentre, which in turn orbits the Sun. This is why Pluto appears to ‘wobble’ in space when viewed from Earth.
Charon looks young, too! According to NASA: “Mission scientists are surprised by the apparent lack of craters on Charon. South of the moon’s equator … relatively few craters are visible, indicating a relatively young surface that has been reshaped by geologic activity.”11 But if Pluto’s persistent activity at its small size is a puzzle for long-agers, Charon, at only one-eighth of Pluto’s volume, significantly deepens the mystery. In an ‘old’ solar system, it should have been geologically ‘dead’ long before Pluto, even.
The other four moons of Pluto beyond Charon are Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Charon rotates once per lap (because it is gravitationally locked to Pluto), Styx rotates 6.22 times, Nix 13.6 times, Kerberos 6.04 times, but Hydra rotates an amazing 88.9 times per lap. Nix rotates retrograde, i.e. backwards against its orbit. Also Nix is tilted on its axis by 132 degrees. Such ‘chaos’ defies evolutionary explanation.
Solving the puzzles
Dropping the evolutionary assumption of billions of years from the age of the universe resolves these problems. In a solar system only several thousand years old, energy could still be dissipating since creation. In fact, New Horizons has provided evidence that the solar system cannot be billions of years old—only thousands, as the Bible indicates.