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.