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Mysterious Red Spot in Charon Came from Pluto's Leaky Atmosphere

Sep 15, 2016 07:43 AM EDT
Pluto and Charon
A new study revealed that the red spot on Charon most likely came from the escaping atmosphere of Pluto captured by the moon's gravity.
(Photo : NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via Getty Images)

A new study revealed that the mysterious red spot in Charon's North Pole were actually a build-up of carbon-rich complex molecules that came from Pluto's leaky atmosphere.

The study, published in the journal Nature, suggests that the atmosphere of the dwarf planet drifting into space could be captured by its satellite. However, Pluto's traveling atmosphere freeze out on its frigid moon Charon. Radiation will then quickly transform the methane and nitrogen ices into a dark-red chemical, known as tholin.

Pluto's escaping atmosphere is due to the small size of the dwarf planet. While Pluto managed to hold to some of its atmosphere, much of the gas around it leaks into space.

As the escaped gas from Pluto lurks around in space, Charon manages to catch a few. However, the warm temperature in Charon's equator allows less of the material from Pluto to fall to the moon's surface. Additionally, Charon's surface is too warm for methane to stick making the captured methane to bounce around until they once again escape into space or find a place cold enough to stick.

The moon's North Pole seems to be cold enough for methane to stick. Due to this, methane accumulates in the in Charon's magnetic pole. However, radiation from the sun and galactic cosmic rays strip away the hydrogen from the methane, leaving behind carbon. These carbons combined with other molecules to create heavier fragments of materials able to stick around even after temperatures warmed.

"As more and more fragments join up, they build progressively bigger and more carbon-rich, complicated molecules until they are so complex that we don't even try to give them chemical names, just describe them with generic terms like 'organic molecules' or 'tholins,'" explained Will Grundy, lead author of the study, in a report from "These are what produce the reddish color."

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