Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia: Composition of geological units from infrared spectroscopy

1F.Scipioni et al. (>10)
Icarus (in Press) Link to Article [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.icarus.2021.114303]
1SETI Institute, Mountain View, CA 94040, USA
Copyright Elsevier

We have compared spectroscopic data of Sputnik Planitia on Pluto, as acquired by New Horizons’ Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument, to the geomorphology as mapped by White et al. (2017) using visible and panchromatic imaging acquired by the LOng-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). We have focused on 13 of the geologic units identified by White et al. (2017), which include the plains and mountain units contained within the Sputnik basin. We divided the map of Sputnik Planitia into 15 provinces, each containing one or more geologic units, and we use LEISA to calculate the average spectra of the units inside the 15 provinces. Hapke-based modeling was then applied to the average spectra of the units to infer their surface composition, and to determine if the composition resulting from the modeling of LEISA spectra reflects the geomorphologic analyses of LORRI data, and if areas classified as being the same geologically, but which are geographically separated, share a similar composition. We investigated the spatial distribution of the most abundant ices on Pluto’s surface – CH4, N2, CO, H2O, and a non-ice component presumed to be a macromolecular carbon-rich material, termed a tholin, that imparts a positive spectral slope in the visible spectral region and a negative spectral slope longward of ~1.1 μm. Because the exact nature of the non-ice component is still debated and because the negative spectral slope of the available tholins in the near infrared does not perfectly match the Pluto data, for spectral modeling purposes we reference it generically as the negative spectral slope endmember (NSS endmember). We created maps of variations in the integrated band depth (from LEISA data) and areal mass fraction (from the modeling) of the components. The analysis of correlations between the occurrences of the endmembers in the geologic units led to the observation of an anomalous suppression of the strong CH4 absorption bands in units with compositions that are dominated by H2O ice and the NSS endmember. Exploring the mutual variation of the CH4 and N2 integrated band depths with the abundance of crystalline H2O and NSS endmember revealed that the NSS endmember is primarily responsible for the suppression of CH4 absorptions in mountainous units located along the western edge of Sputnik Planitia. Our spectroscopic analyses have provided additional insight into the geological processes that have shaped Sputnik Planitia. A general increase in volatile abundance from the north to the south of Sputnik Planitia is observed. Such an increase first observed and interpreted by Protopapa et al., 2017 and later confirmed by climate modeling (Bertrand et al., 2018) is expressed geomorphologically in the form of preferential deposition of N2 ice in the upland and mountainous regions bordering the plains of southern Sputnik Planitia. Relatively high amounts of pure CH4 are seen at the southern Tenzing Montes, which are a natural site for CH4 deposition owing to their great elevation and the lower insolation they are presently receiving. The NSS endmember correlates the existence of tholins within certain units, mostly those coating the low-latitude mountain ranges that are co-latitudinal with the tholin-covered Cthulhu Macula. The spectral analysis has also revealed compositional differences between the handful of occurrences of northern non-cellular plains and the surrounding cellular plains, all of which are located within the portion of Sputnik Planitia that is presently experiencing net sublimation of volatiles, and which do not therefore exhibit a surface layer of bright, freshly-deposited N2 ice. The compositional differences between the cellular and non-cellular plains here hint at the effectiveness of convection in entraining and trapping tholins within the body of the cellular plains, while preventing the spread of such tholins to abutting non-cellular plains.

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