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Journal Articles Icarus Year : 2017

Physical state and distribution of materials at the surface of Pluto from New Horizons LEISA imaging spectrometer


From Earth based observations Pluto is known to be the host of N2, CH4 and CO ices and also a dark red material. Very limited spatial distribution information is available from rotational visible and near-infrared spectral curves obtained from hemispheric measurements. In July 2015 the New Horizons spacecraft reached Pluto and its satellite system and recorded a large set of data. The LEISA spectro-imager of the RALPH instruments are dedicated to the study of the composition and physical state of the materials composing the surface. In this paper we report a study of the distribution and physical state of the ices and non-ice materials on Pluto's illuminated surface and their mode and degree of mixing. Principal Component analysis as well as various specific spectral indicators and correlation plots are used on the first set of 2 high resolution spectro-images from the LEISA instrument covering the whole illuminated face of Pluto at the time of the New Horizons encounter. Qualitative distribution maps have been obtained for the 4 main condensed molecules, N2, CH4, CO, H2O as well as for the visible-dark red material. Based on specific spectral indicators, using either the strength or the position of absorption bands, these 4 molecules are found to indicate the presence of 3 different types of ices: N2-rich:CH4:CO ices, CH4-rich(:CO:N2?) ices and H2O ice. The mixing lines between these ices and with the dark red material are studied using scatter plots between the various spectral indicators. CH4 is mixed at the molecular level with N2, most probably also with CO, thus forming a ternary molecular mixture that follows its phase diagram with low solubility limits. The occurrence of a N2-rich - CH4-rich ices mixing line associated with a progressive decrease of the CO/CH4 ratio tells us that a fractionation sublimation sequence transforms one type of ice to the other forming either a N2-rich - CH4-rich binary mixture at the surface or an upper CH4-rich ice crust that may hide the N2-rich ice below. The strong CH4-rich - H2O mixing line witnesses the subsequent sublimation of the CH4-rich ice lag left behind by the N2:CO sublimation (N spring-summer), or a direct condensation of CH4 ice on the cold H2O ice (S autumn). The weak mixing line between CH4-containing ices and the dark red material and the very sharp spatial transitions between these ices and this non-volatile material are probably due to thermal incompatibility. Finally the occurrence of a H2O ice - red material mixing line advocates for a spatial mixing of the red material covering H2O ice, with possibly a small amount intimately mixed in water ice. From this analysis of the different materials distribution and their relative mixing lines, H2O ice appears to be the substratum on which other ices condense or non-volatile organic material is deposited from the atmosphere. N2-rich ices seem to evolve to CH4-dominated ices, possibly still containing traces of CO and N2, as N2 and CO sublimate away. The spatial distribution of these materials is very complex.

The high spatial definition of all these composition maps, as well as those at even higher resolution that will be soon available, will allow us to compare them with Pluto's geologic features observed by LORRI panchromatic and MVIC multispectral imagers to better understand the geophysical processes in action at the surface of this astonishingly active frozen world.

Dates and versions

insu-03692517 , version 1 (09-06-2022)



B. Schmitt, S. Philippe, W. M. Grundy, D. C. Reuter, R. Côte, et al.. Physical state and distribution of materials at the surface of Pluto from New Horizons LEISA imaging spectrometer. Icarus, 2017, 287, pp.229-260. ⟨10.1016/j.icarus.2016.12.025⟩. ⟨insu-03692517⟩
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