Greetings and welcome back!
As I've said before, our lab is a planetary simulation lab. I'm working on the Pluto Simulation Chamber. But first, let's see what Pluto's environment is...
Pluto has an average surface temperature of about 50 Kelvin (-369°F) and pressures of 10 micro bar (0.000001 bar). For comparison, Earth has a surface temperature of 287 Kelvin (52°F) and a pressure of 1 bar. The chamber needs to be near-vacuum (almost pressure-less!) and uses liquid helium to get it cold enough! Why not liquid nitrogen? Liquid nitrogen's "limit" of cold is at -320°F where liquid helium's limit is at -452°F.
So what kind of science can we do with this chamber? I'll explain each of these sciences in later blog posts, but essentially we would be looking at gas mixtures and different ices. How?
We use a technique called Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy. Basically, each gas, liquid, and solid has a unique "fingerprint"- a signature- at the atomic level in the infrared spectrum. So if we mix up gases, we can determine what types of elements and how much concentration are in that mixture! For the Pluto chamber, we would have mainly nitrogen and methane with tiny amounts of other gases, like carbon monoxide.
Take a look at Pluto's atmosphere! It's a very pretty blue hue because of the methane! (Which is why Neptune looks totally blue- it has a LOT of methane!).
Did you know: the journey of the New Horizons capsule at Pluto is about 32 trips between the Sun and the Earth (about 2.96 billion miles!)
Tune in next week when I explain a little bit more on what spectroscopy is and why it's helpful in the planetary sciences for knowing what in the world we are looking at!