New findings on Pluto's surface announced

Dec. 20, 2011 at 6:18 PM

SAN ANTONIO, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- U.S. scientists say instruments aboard the Hubble Space Telescope have found evidence of complex molecules on the surface to Pluto.

The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph aboard Hubble has discovered a strong ultraviolet-wavelength absorber on Pluto's surface, pointing to the possibility of complex hydrocarbon molecules lying on the surface, researchers said.

Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute and Nebraska Wesleyan University said such molecules can be produced by the interaction of 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," researcher Alan Stern said in an SRI release Tuesday.

"The discovery we made with Hubble reminds us that even more exciting discoveries about Pluto's composition and surface evolution are likely to be in store when NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrives at Pluto in 2015," Stern said.

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Topics: Alan Stern, NASA
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