New evidence for complex molecules on Pluto's surface

Dec 20, 2011
The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph aboard NASA's Hubble Space Telescope recently discovered a strong ultraviolet-wavelength absorber on Pluto's surface. Image courtesy NASA/STScI

(PhysOrg.com) -- The new and highly sensitive Cosmic Origins Spectrograph aboard the Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a strong ultraviolet-wavelength absorber on Pluto's surface, providing new evidence that points to the possibility of complex hydrocarbon and/or nitrile molecules lying on the surface, according to a paper recently published in the Astronomical Journal by researchers from Southwest Research Institute and Nebraska Wesleyan University.

Such chemical species can be produced by the interaction of sunlight or cosmic rays with Pluto's known surface ices, including methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen.

The project, led by SwRI's Dr. Alan Stern, also included SwRI researchers Dr. John Spencer and Adam Shinn, and Nebraska Wesleyan University researchers Dr. Nathaniel Cunningham and student Mitch Hain.

"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 Stern.

The team also discovered evidence of changes in Pluto's compared to Hubble measurements from the 1990s. The changes may be related to differing terrains seen now versus in the 1990s, or to other effects, such as changes in the surface related to a steep increase in the pressure of Pluto's atmosphere during that same time span.

"The discovery we made with Hubble reminds us that even more exciting discoveries about Pluto's composition and surface evolution are likely to be in store when NASA's arrives at Pluto in 2015," Stern added.

Explore further: Red moon at night; stargazer's delight

Related Stories

New Hubble images show similar colors for Pluto's moons

Mar 10, 2006

Using new Hubble Space Telescope observations, a research team led by Dr. Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Dr. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute has found ...

Hubble discovers another moon around Pluto

Jul 20, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a fourth moon orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto. The tiny, new satellite, temporarily designated P4, was uncovered in a Hubble survey ...

New Hubble Maps of Pluto Show Surface Changes (w/ Video)

Feb 04, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA today released the most detailed set of images ever taken of the distant dwarf planet Pluto. The images taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope show an icy and dark molasses-colored, mottled ...

The lower atmosphere of Pluto revealed

Mar 02, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- "With lots of methane in the atmosphere, it becomes clear why Pluto's atmosphere is so warm," says Emmanuel Lellouch, lead author of the paper reporting the results.

New Horizons Gets First Glimpse of Pluto

Nov 30, 2006

The New Horizons team got a faint glimpse of the mission's distant, main planetary target when one of the spacecraft's telescopic cameras spotted Pluto for the first time.

Recommended for you

Astronauts to reveal sobering data on asteroid impacts

5 hours ago

This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… ...

Rosetta instrument commissioning continues

6 hours ago

We're now in week four of six dedicated to commissioning Rosetta's science instruments after the long hibernation period, with the majority now having completed at least a first initial switch on.

Astronaut salary

6 hours ago

Talk about a high-flying career! Being a government astronaut means you have the chance to go into space and take part in some neat projects—such as going on spacewalks, moving robotic arms and doing science ...

Red moon at night; stargazer's delight

Apr 16, 2014

Monday night's lunar eclipse proved just as delightful as expected to those able to view it. On the East Coast, cloudy skies may have gotten in the way, but at the National Science Foundation's National Optical ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Dec 20, 2011
Nitrile on Pluto ?

I wonder if that could implicated in the development of life in our solar system ?
omatumr
1 / 5 (3) Dec 20, 2011
complex hydrocarbon and/or nitrile molecules, . . .


. . . are not unexpected on Pluto, because

a.) The most abundant elements beyond the asteroid belt are H, He, C, and N.

b.) The most abundant elements in the Sun, the inner planets, and ordinary meteorites are Fe, O, Ni, Si, S, Mg and Ca [1].

1. "Solar abundance of elements from neutron-capture cross sections"
36th Lunar & Planetary Science Conference, 1033 (2005)

www.lpi.usra.edu/...1033.pdf

More news stories

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Hubble image: A cross-section of the universe

An image of a galaxy cluster taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope gives a remarkable cross-section of the Universe, showing objects at different distances and stages in cosmic history. They range ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Researchers discover target for treating dengue fever

Two recent papers by a University of Colorado School of Medicine researcher and colleagues may help scientists develop treatments or vaccines for Dengue fever, West Nile virus, Yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and other ...

Study recalculates costs of combination vaccines

One of the most popular vaccine brands for children may not be the most cost-effective choice. And doctors may be overlooking some cost factors when choosing vaccines, driving the market toward what is actually a more expensive ...