The subsurface of Pluto from submillimetre observations

J. S. Greaves, A. C. M. Whitelaw, G. J. Bendo

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Surface areas on Pluto change in brightness and colour, at optical to infrared wavelengths, over time-scales as short as years. The subsurface contains a reservoir of frozen volatiles, but little is known about it because Pluto is out of reach for cm-radar. Here we present a 0.85 mm wavelength light curve of the Pluto system, from archival data taken in 1997 August with the SCUBA (Submillimetre Common-User Bolometer Array) camera on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT). This wavelength probes for the first time to just below the skin depth of thermal changes over Pluto's day. The light curve differs significantly from counterparts in the mid- to far-infrared, in a longitude range that is optically dark on Pluto's surface. An estimate from Herschel of the 0.5 mm flux in 2012 is comparable to the mean 0.45 mm flux from SCUBA in 1997, suggesting that layers centimetres below the surface have not undergone any gross temperature change. The longitudes that are relatively submillimetre-faint could have a different emissivity, perhaps with a subsurface layer richer in nitrogen or methane ices than at the surface. The Radio Science Experiment (REX) instrument on New Horizons may be able to constrain physical properties deeper down, as it looks back on Pluto's nightside after the 2015 July flyby.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)L82-L85
    Number of pages4
    JournalRoyal Astronomical Society. Monthly Notices. Letters (Online)
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2015


    • Kuiper belt objects: individual: Pluto
    • planets and satellites: surfaces


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