DPS 34th Meeting, October 2002
Session 20. Pluto Occultations 2002
Invited, Chair: P. James, Wednesday, October 9, 2002, 8:30-9:15am, Ballroom

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[20.01] Pluto's Atmosphere

J. L. Elliot (MIT)

Pluto's tenuous atmosphere -- detected with a widely observed stellar occultation in 1988 (Millis et al., 1993, Icarus 105, 282) -- consists primarily of N2, with trace amounts of CO and CH4. The N2 gas is in vapor-pressure equilibrium with surface ice, which should maintain a uniform temperature for the N2 ice on the surface of the body. Data from the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) for the 1988 occultation showed Pluto's middle atmosphere to be isothermal at about 105 K for at least a scale height above a radius of about 1215 km (Pluto's surface radius is 1175 ± 25 km; Tholen & Buie 1997, in Pluto and Charon, 193). This temperature can be explained with radiative-conductive models (e.g. Yelle & Lunine 1989, Nature 339, 288; Strobel et al. 1996, Icarus 120 266), using the spectroscopically measured amount of CH4 (Young et al. 1997, Icarus, 127 258). Below the isothermal region there is an abrupt drop in the KAO occultation light curve, which has been interpreted as being caused either by (i) an absorption layer, or (ii) a sharp thermal gradient. As Pluto recedes from the sun, the diminishing solar flux provides less energy for sublimation, which may lead to a substantial drop in surface pressure. On the other hand, the emissivity change that accompanies the \alpha - \beta phase transition for N2 ice may leave the surface pressure relatively unchanged from its present value (Stansberry & Yelle 1999, Icarus 141, 299). Stellar occultation observations were successfully carried out in 2002 July and August (Sicardy et al., Buie et al., and Elliot et al., this conference) from a large number of telescopes: the IRTF, UH 2.2 m, UH 0.6 m, UKIRT, CFHT, Lick 3 m, Lowell 1.8 m, Palomar 5 m, as well as 0.35 m and smaller portable telescopes. The wavelengths of these observations ranged from the visible to near IR. These new data give us a snapshot of Pluto's atmospheric structure 14 years after the initial observations and reveal changes in the structure of Pluto's atmosphere. Occultation research at MIT is supported, in part, by NASA (NAG5-10444) and NSF (AST-0073447).

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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 34, #3
© 2002. The American Astronomical Soceity.