Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Hi, I’m Kelsi Singer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Southwest Research Institute, working on NASA’s New Horizons mission and specializing in geology and geophysics. One of my areas of expertise is impact cratering. That subject may not seem related to Pluto’s atmosphere or nitrogen at first, but let me tell you about research that New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and I conducted and published as a prediction paper before the flyby of Pluto.
New Horizons has returned striking images of both Pluto’s surface and its atmosphere. Pluto’s atmosphere is similar to Earth’s in that it is predominantly composed of nitrogen (N). But Pluto’s atmosphere is ~98% N, while Earth’s is only ~78% N. Pluto’s atmosphere is also considerably thinner than Earth’s with ~10,000 times lower pressure at the surface.
SwRI Researcher Kelsi Singer
The nitrogen in Pluto’s atmosphere (in the form of N2 gas) is actually flowing away and escaping the planet at an estimated rate of hundreds of tons per hour. We also see what looks like flowing ice on Pluto’s surface in ...