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The origin of Pluto's peculiar orbit


THE origin of Pluto's unusual orbit—the most eccentric and inclined of all the planets—remains a mystery. The orbits of Pluto and Neptune overlap, but close approaches of these two planets are prevented by the existence of a resonance condition1: Pluto's orbital period is exactly 3/2 that of Neptune, which ensures that the conjunctions always occur near Pluto's aphelion. Long-term orbit integrations2–5 have uncovered other subtle resonances and near-resonances, and indicate that Pluto's orbit is chaotic yet remains macroscopically stable over billion-year timescales. A suggestion4 that the orbit may have evolved purely by chaotic dynamics appears unlikely in light of recent orbital stability studies6, unless one appeals to a well-timed collision to place Pluto in its stable orbit19. Here I show that Pluto could have acquired its current orbit during the late stages of planetary accretion, when the jovian planets underwent significant orbital migration as a result of encounters with residual planetesimals7. As Neptune moved outwards, a small body like Pluto in an initially circular orbit could have been captured into the 3:2 resonance, following which its orbital eccentricity would rise rapidly to its current Neptune-crossing value.

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Malhotra, R. The origin of Pluto's peculiar orbit. Nature 365, 819–821 (1993).

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