Pluto and its atmosphere seen by New Horizons (NASA)

A team of Indian and International scientists have derived the accurate value of Pluto’s atmospheric pressure at its surface. It is more than 80,000 times less than the atmospheric pressure at mean sea level on Earth.

After its discovery in 1930, Pluto was declared to be the ninth planet in our solar system. However later in 2006, it was given the status of dwarf-planet/ minor-planet in our solar system, by International Astronomical Union.

The pressure on the surface of Pluto was calculated from data obtained by observation of stellar occultation by Pluto on 6 June 2020 using 3.6-m Devasthal optical telescope (DOT) (India’s largest optical telescope) and 1.3-m Devasthal Fast Optical Telescope (DFOT) telescopes located at Devasthal, Nainital, said a press release from Ministry of Science & Technology, Government of India.

The work leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Community's H2020 2014-2021 ERC Grant Agreement no. 669416  "Lucky Star." 

The "Lucky Star" project aims is to study the solar system beyond Neptune with stellar occultations. The project is led by Bruno Sicardy in collaboration with groups from Paris, Meudon, Granada and Rio.

In astronomy, an occultation happens when a celestial object gets hidden from the view of the observer due to another celestial object passing in between them. A compilation of twelve stellar occultations by Pluto observed between 1988 and 2016 showed a three-fold monotonic increase of atmospheric pressure during this period.

An international team of scientists, including members from Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES), used signal-to-noise ratio light curves obtained from the sophisticated instruments used in the observations to derive an accurate value of Pluto’s atmospheric pressure at its surface. It was found to be 12.23 μbar -- 80,000 times less than the atmospheric pressure at mean sea level on Earth. They also found that the pressure at the surface is close to the seasonal peak of Pluto.

The research published in ‘Astrophysical Journal Letters (ApJL)’ showed that since mid-2015, Pluto’s atmosphere is in a plateau phase close to peak and is in excellent agreement with the model values calculated earlier by the Pluto volatile transport model in 2019. The team explained further that this occultation was particularly timely as it can test the validity of the current models of Pluto’s atmosphere evolution.

The study also confirms earlier findings that Pluto suffers intense seasonal episodes because of large depression on Pluto, known as Sputnik Planitia. Pluto’s poles remain, for decades, in permanent sunlight or darkness over its 248-year long orbital period leading to strong effects on its Nitrogen (N2) atmosphere that is mainly controlled by vapour pressure equilibrium with the surface N2 ice. Moreover, as Pluto is now moving away from the Galactic plane as seen from Earth, stellar occultations by the dwarf planet are becoming increasingly rare, making this event a decisive one.

Publication link:

For more details, Dr. Saurabh (ARIES) (saurabh[at], Prof. N M Ashok (PRL) (ashoknagarhalli[at], Prof. Anandmayee Tej (IIST) (tej[at] can be contacted.


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