Waves in Pluto's upper atmosphere

M. J. Person, J. L. Elliot, A. A.S. Gulbis, C. A. Zuluaga, B. A. Babcock, A. J. McKay, J. M. Pasachoff, S. P. Souza, William B. Hubbard, C. A. Kulesa, D. W. McCaarthy, S. D. Benecchi, S. E. Levine, A. S. Bosh, E. V. Ryan, W. H. Ryan, A. Meyer, J. Wolf, J. Hill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Observations of the 2007 March 18 occultation of the star P445.3 (2UCAC 25823784; R = 15.3) by Pluto were obtained at high time resolution at five sites across the western United States and reduced to produce light curves for each station using standard aperture photometry. Global models of Pluto's upper atmosphere are fitted simultaneously to all resulting light curves. The results of these model fits indicate that the structure of Pluto's upper atmosphere is essentially unchanged since the previous occultation observed in 2006, leading to a well-constrained measurement of the atmospheric half-light radius at 1291 5 km. These results also confirm that the significant increase in atmospheric pressure detected between 1988 and 2002 has ceased. Inversion of the Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory light curves with unprecedented signal-to-noise ratios reveals significant oscillations in the number density, pressure, and temperature profiles of Pluto's atmosphere. Detailed analysis of this highest resolution light curve indicates that these variations in Pluto's upper atmospheric structure exhibit a previously unseen oscillatory structure with strong correlations of features among locations separated by almost 1200 km in Pluto's atmosphere. Thus, we conclude that these variations are caused by some form of large-scale atmospheric waves. Interpreting these oscillations as Rossby (planetary) waves allows us to establish an upper limit of less than 3 m s -1 for horizontal wind speeds in the sampled region (radius 1340-1460 km) of Pluto's upper atmosphere.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1510-1518
Number of pages9
JournalAstronomical Journal
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2008


  • Occultations
  • Planets and satellites: individual (Pluto)
  • Waves

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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