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In addition to ground-based observations beginning in the 1970s, NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Triton in 1989, and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto in 2015. Prior to the flyby of New Horizons, Pluto and Triton were termed “sister worlds” due to what appeared to be a high degree of similarity in solid-body density, surface ices, diameter, and surface pressures. Despite being small, cold, icy bodies, both Pluto and Triton have been found to have atmospheres that behave as a continuous fluid up to 300 km altitude above the surface and thereby have a defined temperature, surface pressure, and global general circulation (wind). The primary constituent of these atmospheres is molecular nitrogen, with methane and carbon monoxide comprising the largest abundances of trace gases. The surface pressure as measured in the 2010s on both worlds is of the order of 10 microbars (1 Pa = 10 µbar), for these exotic atmospheres exchange mass between sublimation of surface ice and deposition of nitrogen over the course of each body’s year. Ground-based stellar occultation measurements observed a dramatic change in surface pressure, which one study found was as much as a factor of two increase between 1988 and 2003 on Pluto, presumably due to Pluto’s seasonal volatile cycle. Voyager 2 observed plumes and surface “streaks” on Triton, while New Horizons observed dunes (indicating wind speeds of 1–10 m s−1) as well as streaks, evidently indicating the presence of surface and near-surface winds. While wind velocity aloft has not been directly measured on Pluto or Triton, 3-D general circulation modeling studies of both worlds have shown zonal (east–west) wind speeds of the order of 10 m/s, meridional (north–south) wind speeds of the order of 1 m/s, and extremely weak vertical wind speeds. In 2015, New Horizons showed that Pluto and Triton were much more different than previously thought. New Horizons uncovered many spectacular views of Pluto’s atmosphere. First, while hydrocarbon haze was observed on Triton, Pluto had multiple, very distinct stratified haze layers bearing a similar appearance to the layers of an onion. Second, Pluto’s surface elevation was found to be largely inhomogeneous (in contrast to Triton) in the form of a large depression (Sputnik Planitia). Third, the characteristics of the surface markings on Pluto were found to be different than the streaks observed on Triton, which has implications for surface wind patterns. Further major discoveries made by New Horizons included evidence for many hydrocarbon species in trace concentrations, a lower than expected surface pressure, which could previously only be indirectly ascertained from ground-based observations, and a higher mixing ratio of methane at higher altitudes than at lower due to gravitational diffusive separation. Using radio occultation experiments (not conducted by Voyager 2 at Triton), New Horizons confirmed the existence of a stratosphere (temperature increasing with height) extending to 25 km altitude at both the entry and exit locations. The entry location had a shallow troposphere (temperature decreasing with height) extending to 3.5 km altitude above the surface, while the exit location did not.


Will Grundy

Pluto orbits the Sun at a mean distance of 39.5 AU (astronomical units; 1 AU is the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun), with an orbital period of 248 Earth years. Its orbit is just eccentric enough to cross that of Neptune. They never collide thanks to a 2:3 mean-motion resonance: Pluto completes two orbits of the Sun for every three by Neptune. The Pluto system consists of Pluto and its large satellite Charon, plus four small satellites: Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Pluto and Charon are spherical bodies, with diameters of 2,377 and 1,212 km, respectively. They are tidally locked to one another such that each spins about its axis with the same 6.39-day period as their mutual orbit about their common barycenter. Pluto’s surface is dominated by frozen volatiles nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. Their vapor pressure supports an atmosphere with multiple layers of photochemical hazes. Pluto’s equator is marked by a belt of dark red maculae, where the photochemical haze has accumulated over time. Some regions are ancient and cratered, while others are geologically active via processes including sublimation and condensation, glaciation, and eruption of material from the subsurface. The surfaces of the satellites are dominated by water ice. Charon has dark red polar stains produced from chemistry fed by Pluto’s escaping atmosphere. The existence of a planet beyond Neptune had been postulated by Percival Lowell and William Pickering in the early 20th century to account for supposed clustering in comet aphelia and perturbations of the orbit of Uranus. Both lines of evidence turned out to be spurious, but they motivated a series of searches that culminated in Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930 at the observatory Lowell had founded in Arizona. Over subsequent decades, basic facts about Pluto were hard-won through application of technological advances in astronomical instrumentation. During the progression from photographic plates through photoelectric photometers to digital array detectors, space-based telescopes, and ultimately, direct exploration by robotic spacecraft, each revealed more about Pluto. A key breakthrough came in 1978 with the discovery of Charon by Christy and Harrington. Charon’s orbit revealed the mass of the system. Observations of stellar occultations constrained the sizes of Pluto and Charon and enabled the detection of Pluto’s atmosphere in 1988. Spectroscopic instruments revealed Pluto’s volatile ices. In a series of mutual events from 1985 through 1990, Pluto and Charon alternated in passing in front of the other as seen from Earth. Observations of these events provided additional constraints on their sizes and albedo patterns and revealed their distinct compositions. The Hubble Space Telescope’s vantage above Earth’s atmosphere enabled further mapping of Pluto’s albedo patterns and the discovery of the small satellites. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew through the system in 2015. Its instruments mapped the diversity and compositions of geological features on Pluto and Charon and provided detailed information on Pluto’s atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind.