Structure and composition of Pluto's atmosphere from the New Horizons solar ultraviolet occultation

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The Alice instrument on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft observed an ultraviolet solar occultation by Pluto's atmosphere on 2015 July 14. The transmission vs. altitude was sensitive to the presence of N2, CH4, C2H2, C2H4, C2H6, and haze. We derived line-of-sight abundances and local number densities for the 5 molecular species, and line-of-sight optical depth and extinction coefficients for the haze. We found the following major conclusions: (1) We confirmed temperatures in Pluto's upper atmosphere that were colder than expected before the New Horizons flyby, with upper atmospheric temperatures near 65–68 K. The inferred enhanced Jeans escape rates were (3–7) × 1022 N2 s−1 and (4–8) × 1025 CH4 s−1 at the exobase (at a radius of ∼ 2900 km, or an altitude of ∼1710 km). (2) We measured CH4 abundances from 80 to 1200 km above the surface. A joint analysis of the Alice CH4 and Alice and REX N2 measurements implied a very stable lower atmosphere with a small eddy diffusion coefficient, most likely between 550 and 4000 cm2 s−1. Such a small eddy diffusion coefficient placed the homopause within 12 km of the surface, giving Pluto a small planetary boundary layer. The inferred CH4 surface mixing ratio was ∼ 0.28–0.35%. (3) The abundance profiles of the “C2Hx hydrocarbons” (C2H2, C2H4, C2H6) were not simply exponential with altitude. We detected local maxima in line-of-sight abundance near 410 km altitude for C2H4, near 320 km for C2H2, and an inflection point or the suggestion of a local maximum at 260 km for C2H6. We also detected local minima near 200 km altitude for C2H4, near 170 km for C2H2, and an inflection point or minimum near 170–200 km for C2H6. These compared favorably with models for hydrocarbon production near 300–400 km and haze condensation near 200 km, especially for C2H2 and C2H4 (Wong et al., 2017). (4) We found haze that had an extinction coefficient approximately proportional to N2 density.




Young, L. A., Kammer, J. A., Steffl, A. J., Gladstone, G. R., Summers, M. E., Strobel, D. F., … Versteeg, M. (2018). Structure and composition of Pluto’s atmosphere from the New Horizons solar ultraviolet occultation. Icarus, 300, 174–199.

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