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If you want to learn something about a place that's billions of miles away, it helps to be in the right place at the right time.
Astronomers from MIT and Williams College were lucky enough to watch as Pluto's largest moon, Charon, passed in front of a star last summer. Based on their observations of the occultation, which lasted for less than a minute, the team reports new details about the moon in the Jan. 5 issue of Nature.
A second paper from another group, led by French astronomer Bruno Sicardy, also appears in this issue of Nature.
The MIT-Williams team was able to measure Charon's size to an unprecedented accuracy and determine that it has no significant atmosphere.
"The results provide insight into the formation and evolution of bodies in the outer solar system," said lead author Amanda Gulbis, a postdoctoral associate in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.
Specifically, the team found that Charon has a radius of 606 kilometers, "plus or minus 8 kilometers to account for local topography or possible non-sphericity in Charon's shape," Gulbis said. That size, combined with mass measurements from Hubble Space Telescope data, show that the moon has a density roughly one-third that of the Earth. This reflects Charon's rocky-icy composition.
The team also found that the density of any atmosphere on the moon must be less than a millionth of that of the Earth. This argues against the theory that Pluto and Charon were formed by the cooling and condensing of the gas and dust known as the solar nebula. Instead, Charon was likely created in a celestial collision between an object and a proto-Pluto.
"Our observations show that there is no substantial atmosphere on Charon, which is consistent with an impact formation scenario," Gulbis said. Similar theories exist about the formation of the Earth-moon system.
The success of the MIT-Williams team in observing the Charon occultation bodes well for future adaptations of the technique the researchers used.
"We are eager to use (it) to probe for atmospheres around recently discovered Kuiper Belt objects that are Pluto-sized or even larger," said James Elliot, co-author of the Nature paper and a professor in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and in the Department of Physics. Elliot has been observing stellar occultations by bodies in the solar system for more than three decades.
Jay Pasachoff, Williams College team leader and a professor in its Department of Astronomy, said, "It's remarkable that our group could be in the right place at the right time to line up a tiny body 3 billion miles away. The successful observations are quite a reward for all of the people who helped predict the event, constructed and integrated the equipment and traveled to the telescopes."
In addition to Elliot and Gulbis, members of the MIT team were Michael Person, Elisabeth Adams and Susan Kern, with support from undergraduate Emily Kramer. The Williams College team included Pasachoff, Bryce Babcock, Steven Souza and undergraduate Joseph Gangestad.
The work was supported by NASA.