Pluto seen by New Horizons. © NASA

The chemistry of Pluto

Hi there! The famous dwarf planet Pluto is better known to us since the flyby of the spacecraft New Horizons in 2015. Today, I tell you about its chemistry. I present you Solid-phase equilibria on Pluto’s surface, by Sugata P. Tan & Jeffrey S. Kargel, which has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The atmosphere of Pluto

I do not want here to recall everything about Pluto. This is a dwarf planet, which has been discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. It orbits most of the time outside the orbit of Neptune, but with such an eccentricity that it is sometimes inside. It was discovered in 1978 that Pluto has a large satellite, Charon, so large that the system Pluto-Charon can be seen as a binary object. This binary has at least 4 small satellites, which were discovered thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Pluto has a tenuous atmosphere. It was discovered from the Earth in 1985 in analyzing a stellar occultation: when a faint, atmosphereless object is aligned between a star and a observer, the observer does not see the star anymore. However, when the object has an atmosphere, the light emitted by the star is deviated, and can even be focused by the atmosphere, resulting in a peak of luminosity.

Several occultations have permitted to constrain the atmosphere. It has been calculated that its pressure is about 15 μbar (the one of the Earth being close to 1 bar, so it is very tenuous), and that it endured seasonal variations. By seasonal I mean the same as for the Earth: because of the variations of the Sun-Pluto distance and the obliquity of Pluto, which induces that every surface area has a time-dependent insolation, thermic effects affect the atmosphere. This can be direct effects, i.e. the Sun heats the atmosphere, but also indirect ones, in which the Sun heats the surface, triggering ice sublimation, which itself feeds the atmosphere. The seasonal cycle, i.e. the plutonian (or hadean) year lasts 248 years.

Observations have shown that this atmosphere is hotter at its top than at the surface, i.e. the temperature goes down from 110 K to about 45 K (very cold anyway). This atmosphere is mainly composed of nitrogen N2, methane CH4, and carbon monoxide CO.

The surface of Pluto

The surface is known to us thanks to New Horizons. Let me particularly focus on two regions:

  • Sputnik Planitia: this is the heart that can be seen on a map of Pluto. It is directed to Charon, and is covered by volatile ice, essentially made of nitrogen N2,
  • Cthulhu Regio: a large, dark reddish macula, on which the volatile ice is absent.
A map of Pluto (mosaic made with New Horizons data). © NASA
A map of Pluto (mosaic made with New Horizons data). © NASA

The reason why I particularly focus on these two regions is that they have two different albedos, i.e. the bright Sputnik Planitia is very efficient to reflect the incident Solar light, while Cthulhu Regio is much less efficient. This also affects the temperature: on Sputnik Planitia, the temperature never rises above 37 K, while it never goes below 42.5 K in Cthulhu Regio. We will see below that it affects the composition of the surface.

An Equation Of State

The three main components, i.e. nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide, have different sublimation temperatures at 11μbar, which are 36.9 K, 53 K, and 40.8 K, respectively (sublimation: direct transition from the solid to the gaseous state. No liquid phase.). A mixture of them will then be a coexistence of solid and gaseous phases, which depends on the temperature, the pressure, and the respective abundances of these 3 chemical components. The pressure is set to 11μbar, since it was the pressure measured by New Horizons, but several temperatures should be considered, since it is not homogeneous. The authors considered temperatures between 36.5 K and 41.5 K. Since the atmosphere has seasonal variations, a pressure of 11μbar should be considered as a snapshot at the closest encounter with New Horizons (July 14, 2015), but not as a mean value.

The goal of the authors is to build an Equation Of State giving the phases of a given mixture, under conditions of temperature and pressure relevant for Pluto. The surface is thus seen as a multicomponent solid solution. For that, they develop a model, CRYOCHEM for CRYOgenic CHEMistry, which aims at predicting the phase equilibrium under cryogenic conditions. The paper I present you today is part of this development. Any system is supposed to evolve to a minimum of energy, which is an equilibrium, and the composition of the surface of Pluto is assumed to be in thermodynamic equilibrium with the atmosphere. The energy which should be minimized, i.e. the Helmholtz energy, is related to the interactions between the molecules. A hard-sphere model is considered, i.e. a minimal distance between two adjacent particles should be maintained, and for that the geometry of the crystalline structure is considered. Finally, the results are compared with the observations by New Horizons.

Such a model requires many parameters. Not only the pressure and temperature, but also the relative fraction of the 3 components, and the parameters related to the energies involved. These parameters are deduced from extrapolations of lab experiments.


The predicted coexistence of states predicted by this study is consistent with the observations. Moreover, it shows that the small fraction of carbon monoxide can be neglected, as the behavior of the ternary mixture of N2/CH4/CO is very close to the one of the binary N2/CH4. This results in either a nitrogren-rich solid phase, for the coolest regions (the bright Sputnik Planitia, e.g.), and a methane-rich solid phase for the warmest ones, like Cthulhu Regio.

Developing such a model has broad implications for predicting the composition of bodies’s surfaces, for which we lack of data. The authors give the example of the satellite of Neptune Triton, which size and distance to the Sun present some similarities with Pluto. They also invite the reader to stay tuned, as an application of CRYOCHEM to Titan, which is anyway very different from Pluto, is expected for publication pretty soon.

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

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