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Occultation Confirms Haze in Pluto’s Atmosphere

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SOFIA noticed the occultation by Pluto of a vivid star on 29 June 2015, enabling scientists to measure strain, density, and temperature profiles of the environment of the dwarf planet.

Pre-event astrometry allowed the SOFIA group to place the plane deep inside the central flash zone, simply 22 km from the middle of the occultation path.

In the course of the occultation, Pluto’s shadow traveled at 53,000 mph throughout the Pacific Ocean. SOFIA flew from its Southern Hemisphere base in New Zealand to look at the occultation occasion for 120 seconds. It was the one observatory capable of place itself within the predicted middle of the shadow’s path, and due to this fact capable of observe a powerful, distinct brightening close to the center of the occultation, referred to as the central flash. This allowed scientists to probe Pluto’s environment at low altitudes.

About two hours earlier than the occultation, scientists at MIT contacted the SOFIA in-flight group with the information that the middle of the shadow would cross greater than 200 miles north of the place on which the airborne observatory’s flight plan had been based mostly. After recalculating and submitting a revised flight plan, SOFIA’s flight crew and science group needed to wait an anxious 20 minutes earlier than receiving permission from air site visitors management to change the flight path accordingly.

Observations had been taken concurrently with the First Mild Check Digicam (FLITECAM), an infrared digicam with grism spectroscopy, the Excessive-Pace Imaging Photometer for Occultations (HIPO), a particularly quick and correct digital multi-colored imager, and the Focal Airplane Imager Plus (FPI+), a quick frame-rate imaging photometer. Collectively these devices offered a multi-wavelength view over 4 photometric bands, from Zero.57 to 1.eight µm. These devices and their capability to be co-mounted on the telescope had been designed with this exact commentary in thoughts. Solely this kind of simultaneous multi-colored commentary can detect the variations within the occultation signatures of clear and hazy atmospheres.

With the intention to examine atmospheric traits with data retrieved from earlier occultations, the sunshine curve area close to half-light was first modeled with previously-used clear atmospheric fashions. No important strain variation was recognized between 2011 and 2015, offering data on how the environment is successfully resupplied by nitrogen ice sublimation.

Neither a pure isothermal nor temperature-gradient atmospheric mannequin resulted in good matches to the complete 2015 SOFIA information. Nevertheless, a thick, hazy area inside the environment produces a superb match to the whole dataset, together with in and across the central flash, which is delicate to decrease altitudes of the environment (the place haze is presumed to be thicker).

As well as, a particular variation of residual flux throughout the totally different noticed wavelengths was detected, which is strongly indicative of wavelength-dependent scattering by a haze element. Modeling of the residual flux gradient, assuming the haze composition, allowed scientists to constrain the attribute haze particle measurement to ~Zero.06-Zero.10 µm. This discovering means that the haze should be replenished on brief timescales, an necessary implication for understanding the photochemistry of Pluto’s environment.

The observations occurred simply two weeks earlier than the New Horizons spacecraft flew previous the dwarf planet, offering researchers with a number of, practically co-temporal datasets. Ultraviolet information from the spacecraft confirmed the existence of haze within the higher layers of Pluto’s environment whereas infrared and visual mild information from SOFIA confirmed the haze extending to atmospheric layers a lot nearer to the floor.

This was SOFIA’s second Pluto occultation. The primary set of observations, in 2011, confirmed that Pluto’s environment was not collapsing as its eccentric orbit took it farther from the Solar. These observations predicted that the environment would stay secure for the 2015 New Horizons flyby. Continued monitoring is important because the dwarf planet will get even farther from the Solar, as quite a few fashions predict Pluto’s environment will at the very least decline if not vanish over the approaching a long time. The settlement between the flyby and SOFIA information the place they overlap point out that occultations proceed to be an correct methodology to remotely examine Pluto’s environment.

Paper: Haze in Pluto’s atmosphere: Results from SOFIA and Ground-based Observations of the 2015 June 29 Pluto Occultation M. J. Individual et al., 2020, Icarus, in press.

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