Have Complex Molecules Been Found on Pluto’s Surface?

Article written: 22 Dec , 2011
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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First there was the recent story about evidence for a possible subsurface ocean on Pluto, of all places. Now there is a new report regarding evidence for complex molecules on its surface, from scientists at Southwest Research Institute and Nebraska Wesleyan University. Little enigmatic Pluto is starting to get even more interesting…

The findings come from the Hubble Space Telescope, using the new and highly sensitive Cosmic Origins Spectrograph which indicate that there is a strong ultraviolet-wavelength absorber on the surface. This absorbing material is thought to likely be complex hydrocarbons and/or nitriles. The results have been published in the Astronomical Journal.

Pluto’s surface is known to be coated with ices composed of methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen (it is extremely cold there!). The putative molecules can be produced by sunlight or cosmic rays interacting with those ices.

“This is an exciting finding because complex Plutonian hydrocarbons and other molecules that could be responsible for the ultraviolet spectral features we found with Hubble may, among other things, be responsible for giving Pluto its ruddy color,” said project leader Dr. Alan Stern.

The team also found evidence for surface changes in the ultraviolet spectrum, comparing current observations to those from the 1990s. The cause may be an increase in the pressure of Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere or different terrain which is being viewed at different times.

In a unique first for Universe Today, Dr. Alan Stern was the first researcher to be asked questions from readers via the comments section of this recent interview article by Ray Sanders. His answers to the top five questions (as ranked by “likes” on the discussion posts) will be posted soon in a subsequent article. Stern is also the principal investigator for the New Horizons spacecraft currently en route to Pluto.

A copy of the paper by Stern et al. is available here.

With all of the new discoveries already being made about Pluto, it should be very interesting when New Horizons gets there in 2015, providing us with the first close-up look of this fascinating little world.

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11 Responses

  1. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

    […] the New Horizons spacecraft currently enroute to Pluto.

    Yo Paul, “enroute” should be en route.

  2. Ray Fowler says

    Why is a paper by a NASA employee behind a paywall? 🙁

  3. Dan Johnson says

    My gut tells me that Pluto will end up being a “Wow!” world similar to Enceladus, Titan and Europa so far.

    • magnus.nyborg says

      I believe as you do, and I will even conjecture that any place/planet/moon/star investigated in detail will show a much more interesting picture.

  4. Aerandir90 says

    Is there any other significance to this besides contribution to color?

  5. Anonymous says

    This story isn’t new science, it is the usual attention grabbing hype just to “look at me” / “look how clever we are” / “We need to promote for our future funding.” Sorry. “These are the first HST/COS measurements…” is not the same as discovery of these lines. No new compounds were found in the UV Spectra than what was known already before this paper.

    As seen many times before. The English gutter media seems to be absolute experts in manipulation (or be manipulate) of the truth!

    I might be wrong, but please point out where the new “discovery” is here? Isn’t it just another confirmation of what we already knew?

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      Maybe I missed that, but what “English” media?

      please point out where the new “discovery” is here?

      Please point out where the claim of “new “discovery”” is here? I think you read into the post something that isn’t there.

      Tholins (if that is what it is about) are old hat.

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