Detection of ammonia on Pluto’s surface in a region of geologically recent tectonism

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Science Advances  29 May 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 5, eaav5731
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav5731


We report the detection of ammonia (NH3) on Pluto’s surface in spectral images obtained with the New Horizons spacecraft that show absorption bands at 1.65 and 2.2 μm. The ammonia signature is spatially coincident with a region of past extensional tectonic activity (Virgil Fossae) where the presence of H2O ice is prominent. Ammonia in liquid water profoundly depresses the freezing point of the mixture. Ammoniated ices are believed to be geologically short lived when irradiated with ultraviolet photons or charged particles. Thus, the presence of NH3 on a planetary surface is indicative of a relatively recent deposition or possibly through exposure by some geological process. In the present case, the areal distribution is more suggestive of cryovolcanic emplacement, however, adding to the evidence for ongoing geological activity on Pluto and the possible presence of liquid water at depth today.

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