We know why Arrokoth in the Kuiper belt is reddish: this celestial body is sweet!

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On January 1, 2019, the space probe New Horizons rewarded us with an iconic shot of Arrokoth, the most distant object from Earth ever explored. Located in the Kuiper belt, well beyond the planet Neptune, this small body has adopted the singular shape of a snowman. Even more surprising, it is reddish, but researchers have just understood why.

Why red?

Shortly after receiving the image of Arrokoth, scientists proposed an explanation to explain its particular hue. According to them, the red is due to the action of cosmic rays which bombard the surface of this celestial object and convert the ices into organic molecules which appear red to us. But what these molecules are and why red in color remained to be defined until today.

This has now been achieved through laboratory experiments. Researchers at the University of Hawaii (United States) exposed methanol ice, such as that which covers the surface of Arrokoth, to very energetic electrons acting as cosmic rays. They then realized that these electrons lead to a succession of chemical reactions and generate the formation of carbon-rich molecules, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAH), which are found almost everywhere in the universe.

But to the surprise of scientists, the chemical reactions formed a whole bunch of other molecules, commonly called sugars. This particularly concerns glucose, such as that found in our blood, or even allose and glycerol. The researchers were able to demonstrate that it is the combination of all these molecules that gives Arrokoth its reddish hue.

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