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Fifth moon discovery reminds us how little we know about Pluto (+video)

Orbiting at outskirts of the solar system some three billion miles from Earth, Pluto remains shrouded in mystery. 

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Computer models of this cycle suggest that all the dwarf planet's rings sometimes get eroded before a new one forms. "When you model that on a computer there is randomness to [the spacing of the collision events], and so the rings come and go according to these models," he said.

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Beneath those fleeting rings, and beneath Pluto's thin, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, it's anyone's guess how the surface will appear when viewed up close. In Hubble images, the dwarf planet's mottled façade varies between extremes of charcoal black, dark orange and white. What materials compose these assorted regions? And do they give rise to cold-liquid-spewing cryovolcanoes or geysers? The surface's geochemistry might even hint at a giant underground ocean. [The True Stories of 5 Mystery Planets]

More data is also needed to clarify how Pluto wound up in its frigid Kuiper belt domain. Astronomers think it and its neighbors formed from the same disk of material around the sun that coalesced into the other major bodies in the solar system. But at some point early on, a planetary collision probably sent Pluto ricocheting far beyond the rest, forever to carry the mark of this fateful encounter in the form of its strange, oval path around the sun, which lies off the plane of the other planetary orbits.

Considering all the mysteries that remain, Pluto's newfound moon almost definitely won't be the last of its surprises. "When New Horizons gets there, I think it's going to knock our socks off," Stern said. "It's going to be a whole new world."

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover or Life's Little Mysteries @llmysteries. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Copyright 2012 Lifes Little Mysteries, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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