The ongoing work of mining New Horizons’ abundant data from the outer system continues at a brisk pace. But missions occur in context, and we also have discoveries made at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe to bring to bear. The question that occupies Christopher Glein and Hunter Waite (both at SwRI) is how to explain the chemistry New Horizons found at Pluto and what it can tell us about Pluto’s formation.
At the heart of their new paper in Icarus is the question of Pluto’s molecular nitrogen (N2), which plays a role on that world similar to methane on Titan, water on Earth and CO2 on Mars. All are volatiles, meaning they can move between gaseous and condensed forms at the temperature of the planet in question. We’ve learned that solid N2 is the most abundant surface ice visible to spectroscopy on Pluto, as witness the spectacular example of Sputnik Planitia.