Rendering of Pluto
Our Contribution

Detailing Pluto’s Dynamic Atmosphere

Using the Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI) instrument, scientists gained new insights into the composition and escape rate of the dwarf planet Pluto’s dynamic atmosphere.

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About the Instrument

Instrument Type

Flying aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, PEPSSI searched for neutral atoms that escaped Pluto’s atmosphere and became charged — either through solar ultraviolet radiation or through charge exchange with solar wind particles — and then streamed away from Pluto as “pickup” ions carried by the solar wind. However, both before and since the 2015 Pluto flyby, PEPSSI has been capturing and recording valuable data about how energetic particles are accelerated by solar wind structures as they flow outward, in addition to serving as a critical monitor of galactic cosmic rays in the outer heliosphere.

A detailed, 3D rendering of the New Horizons’ PEPSSI instrument.
A detailed, 3D rendering of the New Horizons’ PEPSSI instrument.

PEPSSI is a classic “time-of-flight” instrument: particles enter the detector and knock other particles (electrons) from a thin foil; they zip toward another foil before hitting a solid-state detector. The instrument clocks the time between the foil collisions to determine the particle’s speed and figures its total energy when it collides with the solid-state detector. The combination allows scientists to determine the mass, and from this they can determine the composition of each particle.


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Pluto, Kuiper Belt Objects, and Comets
Graphic of Pluto, Kuiper Belt Objects, and Comets

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