Astrobiological Implications of NASA's New Horizons Mission to Pluto
Leslie Young
Southwest Research Institute



In 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft performed the first visit of the double world of Pluto and Charon and their four small satellites, observing the system with panchromatic and color visible imagers, radio science, near-IR spectra, ultraviolet airglow and occultations, and other means. Of the many results of the flyby, there are several of particular interest to astrobiology. (i) The atmosphere shows photochemical hazes, as on Titan, that form complex hydrocarbons. (ii) Charon once had a liquid-water interior ocean, and Pluto probably still has one. (iii) Pluto is a surprisingly active world, with km-deep solid state convection in the nitrogen-ice-filled basin called Sputnik Planitia, and the remains of cryovolcanic structures such as Wright Mons. The themes of hydrocarbon chemistry, subsurface oceans, and possible recent cryovolcanic activity intersect in new speculation on the formation of prebiotic molecules on Pluto.