Modelling results find that the temperature of Pluto's atmosphere is regulated by haze particles rather than gas molecules, suggesting that Pluto should be brighter than previously thought at mid-infrared wavelengths.
Pluto's atmosphere is cold and hazy1,2,3. Recent observations1 have shown it to be much colder than predicted theoretically4, suggesting an unknown cooling mechanism1. Atmospheric gas molecules, particularly water vapour, have been proposed as a coolant; however, because Pluto's thermal structure is expected to be in radiative-conductive equilibrium4,5,6,7,8,9, the required water vapour would need to be supersaturated by many orders of magnitude under thermodynamic equilibrium conditions9. Here we report that atmospheric hazes, rather than gases, can explain Pluto's temperature profile. We find that haze particles have substantially larger solar heating and thermal cooling rates than gas molecules, dominating the atmospheric radiative balance from the ground to an altitude of 700 kilometres, above which heat conduction maintains an isothermal atmosphere. We conclude that Pluto's atmosphere is unique among Solar System planetary atmospheres, as its radiative energy equilibrium is controlled primarily by haze particles instead of gas molecules. We predict that Pluto is therefore several orders of magnitude brighter at mid-infrared wavelengths than previously thought—a brightness that could be detected by future telescopes.