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Pluto

Although Pluto was discovered in 1930, limited information on the distant planet delayed a realistic understanding of its characteristics. Today Pluto remains the only planet that has not been visited by a spacecraft, yet an increasing amount of information is unfolding about this peculiar planet. The uniqueness of Pluto's orbit, rotational relationship with its satellite, spin axis, and light variations all give the planet a certain appeal.

Pluto is usually farther from the Sun than any of the nine planets; however, due to the eccentricity of its orbit, it is closer than Neptune for 20 years out of its 249 year orbit. Pluto crossed Neptune's orbit January 21, 1979, made its closest approach September 5, 1989, and remained within the orbit of Neptune until February 11, 1999. This will not occur again until September 2226.

As Pluto approaches perihelion it reaches its maximum distance from the ecliptic due to its 17-degree inclination. Thus, it is far above or below the plane of Neptune's orbit. Under these conditions, Pluto and Neptune will not collide and do not approach closer than 18 A.U. to one another.

Pluto's rotation period is 6.387 days, the same as its satellite Charon. Although it is common for a satellite to travel in a synchronous orbit with its planet, Pluto is the only planet to rotate synchronously with the orbit of its satellite. Thus being tidally locked, Pluto and Charon continuously face each other as they travel through space.

Unlike most planets, but similar to Uranus, Pluto rotates with its poles almost in its orbital plane. Pluto's rotational axis is tipped 122 degrees. When Pluto was first discovered, its relatively bright south polar region was the view seen from the Earth. Pluto appeared to grow dim as our viewpoint gradually shifted from nearly pole-on in 1954 to nearly equator-on in 1973. Pluto's equator is now the view seen from Earth.

During the period from 1985 through 1990, Earth was aligned with the orbit of Charon...


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