Pluto and the Kuiper Belt


Pluto is classified as a dwarf planet and is also a member of a group of objects that orbit in a disc-like zone beyond the orbit of Neptune called the Kuiper Belt. This distant realm is populated with thousands of miniature icy worlds, which formed early in the history of our solar system. These icy, rocky bodies are called Kuiper Belt objects or trans-neptunian objects.

Pluto is about two-thirds the diameter of Earth's moon and probably has a rocky core surrounded by a mantle of water ice. More exotic ices like methane and nitrogen frost coat its surface. Owing to its size and lower density, Pluto's mass is about one-sixth that of Earth's moon. Pluto is more massive than Ceres -- the dwarf planet that resides in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter -- by a factor of 14.

Pluto's 248-year-long elliptical orbit can take it as far as 49.3 astronomical units (AU) from the sun. (One AU is the mean distance between Earth and the sun: about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers.) From 1979 to 1999, Pluto was actually closer to the sun than Neptune, and in 1989, Pluto came to within 29.8 AU of the sun, providing rare opportunities to study this small, cold, distant world.

Pluto has a very large moon that is almost half its size named Charon, which was discovered in 1978. This moon is so big that Pluto and Charon are sometimes referred to as a double dwarf planet system. The distance between them is 12,200 miles (19,640 kilometers).
  • Pluto
  • Pluto Symbol
Orbit Specifications
Semi-major axis 5.9 x 109 km
39.4 AU
Eccentricity 0.25
Orbital Period 247.92 years
Physical Characteristics Specifications
Mean radius 1,185 km
0.186 Earths
Mass 1.3 x 1022 kg
0.002 Earths
Mean density 1.86 g/cm3
Surface gravity 0.66 m/s2
0.07 g
Axial tilt 122.5°