New Horizons has discovered a region of cold, dense ionized gas tens of thousands of miles beyond Pluto -- the planet’s atmosphere being stripped away by the solar wind and lost to space. The Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument observed a cavity in the solar wind -- the outflow of electrically charged particles from the Sun -- between 77,000 km (48,000 miles) and 109,000 km (68,000 miles) downstream of Pluto. SWAP data revealed this cavity to be populated with nitrogen ions forming a “plasma tail” of undetermined structure and length extending behind the planet.
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Image credit: Artist’s concept of the interaction of the solar wind (the supersonic outflow of electrically charged particles from the Sun) with Pluto’s predominantly nitrogen atmosphere. NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
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