Pluto has complex molecules on its surface

In spaceResearchers have found complex carbon molecules on Pluto’s surface. These compounds are found to be a strong ultraviolet-wavelength absorber.

This research has been done by SwRI’s Dr. Alan Stern, also included SwRI researchers Dr. John Spencer and Adam Shinn, and Nebraska Wesleyan University researchers Dr. Nathaniel Cunningham and student Mitch Hain and published online in The Astronomical Journal.

Researchers have used Hubble space telescope’s new and highly sensitive Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and found these complex hydrocarbon and/or nitrile molecules. Researchers have found that these chemicals are the result of the interaction of the sunlight or cosmic rays with Pluto’s known surface ices, including methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen.

“This is an exciting finding because complex Plutonian hydrocarbons and other molecules that could be responsible for the ultraviolet spectral features we found with Hubble may, among other things, be responsible for giving Pluto its ruddy color,” said Stern.

Reserchers have also found the changes in “Pluto’s ultraviolet spectrum compared to Hubble measurements from the 1990s.”


S. A. Stern, N. J. Cunningham, M. J. Hain, J. R. Spencer and A. Shinn, (2011). First ultraviolet reflectance spectra of pluto and charon by thehubble space telescope cosmic origins spectrograph: detection of absorption features and evidence for temporal change. The Astronomical Journal. doi:10.1088/0004-6256/143/1/22

Further Reading:

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) News

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