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Friday, July 31, 2015

Cosmic Chemistry on Pluto and Titan: The Formation of Tholins, and Their Possible Link to Life on Earth

Newly released image of Pluto from the New Horizons probe.
Image from NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied
Physics Laboratory/Southwest Resarch Institute.

Unless you (and your Facebook news feed) have been living under a rock, you know about the New Horizons mission to explore Pluto, a mission 9 years in the making. The new high-resolution images have shown us both that Pluto loves us (i.e. the heart-shaped region in the southern hemisphere), and it is blushing from all the attention (its red-orange surface). While astronomers have known the color of Pluto’s surface for years, the high-resolution images clearly outline the terrain on the dwarf planet.  But why is Pluto red? The reason may not be the same as you think – and by that, I mean it’s not for the same reason why Mars is red. It’s actually because of some cool chemical reactions between methane & nitrogen with the help of some ultraviolet light and other cosmic rays to produce tholins, long-thought to be crucial to the existence of a “primordial soup”.