Surface/Atmosphere Interactions and Volatile Transport (Triton, Pluto, and Io)

  • L. M. Trafton
  • D. L. Matson
  • J. A. Stansberry
Part of the Astrophysics and Space Science Library book series (ASSL, volume 227)


On Triton and Pluto, the volatile frosts are held close to a single temperature by hydrostatic equilibrium and latent heat transport. Their atmospheres are expected to undergo extreme seasonal variations in pressure as the insolation on the ices changes, leading to seasonal variations in atmospheric mixing ratios and to the seasonal hemispherical transport of surface ice. A depth of approximately one meter of N 2 ice is transported on semiannual timescales; this is far in excess of the maximum mass of these atmospheres. Pluto’s present atmospheric escape rate implies that over the life of the solar system, ~ 2 km of N 2 ice could have escaped from Pluto. Two alternative models have been proposed which can produce the observed elevated levels of CH 4 in Pluto’s atmosphere, both focusing on surface-atmosphere interactions. The “Detailed Balancing Model” assumes that a CH 4-enriched surface layer, only a few molecules thick and effectively in vapor pressure equilibrium with the atmosphere, reduces the partial pressure of N 2 enough to explain the enhanced atmospheric mixing ratio of CH 4. The “Patch Model” assumes that the sublimation of N 2 leaves behind a relatively small fractional area (at most 1%) of CH 4 ‘lag’ deposit which develops into rather thick, warm local patches which release CH 4 into the atmosphere.

On Io, where SO2 is the only identified volatile interacting between Io’s atmosphere and the surface, the vapor pressure of SO 2 is too small to support a significant global atmosphere. Thus, the atmosphere is confined to regions near active volcanic/plume sources of SO 2 or near patches of surface SO 2 frost deposited by winds emanating from volcanic sources. Recent work has shown that the surface frosts are colder than expected. Reconciliation of the modeling of the new microwave data with the Voyager-view of Io could be achieved if Io has many small plumes (~ 10 km) missed by Voyager. Such plumes are thermodynamically possible and could be easily supported by Io’s intrusive magmatic activity.


Radio Occultation Hydrostatic Equilibrium Sublimation Rate Eruptive Plume Stellar Occultation 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • L. M. Trafton
    • 1
  • D. L. Matson
    • 2
  • J. A. Stansberry
    • 3
  1. 1.McDonald ObservatoryUniversity of Texas at AustinAustinUSA
  2. 2.Jet Propulsion LaboratoryPasadenaUSA
  3. 3.Lowell ObservatoryFlagstaffUSA

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