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Ammonia Detected on the Surface of Pluto

Ammonia Detected on the Surface of Pluto

Image of a blue light surrounding a pitch black Pluto

New research published last week in Science Advances reports on the discovery of ammonia on Pluto based on an extended analysis of data collected by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during the July 2015 flyby of Pluto.

Cristina Dalle Ore, a senior scientist at the SETI Institute, is lead author on the paper and says the presence of ammonia has multiple implications:

  • Ammonia acts as an antifreeze and allows water to be liquid at temperatures about 100C lower than usual. This supports previously reported suggestions of the presence of a body of water underneath Sputnik Planitia, located primarily on the northern hemisphere of Pluto. We don’t know if ammonia is present on local or global scale.
  • Evidence for ammonia and water ice on the surface close to cracks and craters supports the idea of cryovolcanism on Pluto. Cryovolcanism is when underground water finds its way out through cracks or vents and is sprayed to the surface of the planet.
  • The short life of ammonia exposed to UV and cosmic ray irradiation means that the cryoeruptions must be fairly recent, on the order of some million years.
  • In terms of chemistry, ammonia is linked to the formation of complex organic molecules of prebiotic importance--amino acids, nucleobases, etc.

There is still much to be learned about the implications of these findings – the next task will be to identify to location of more vents from which the water and ammonia were sprayed in order to probe the body of liquid water present under the crust.

To read more, click here .

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