The observation was made by analyzing images taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. A study suggests Pluto’s interior was warmer much later than previously thought.
Strange lumpy terrain on Pluto, unlike anything seen before in the solar system, indicates that giant ice volcanoes were relatively recently active on the dwarf planet, scientists said Tuesday. The observation, which was made by analyzing images taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, suggests Pluto’s interior was warmer much later than previously thought, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.
Rather than shooting lava into the air, ice volcanoes ooze a “thicker, melting mixture of ice water or even maybe solid flow like glaciers,” said study author Kelsi Singer. and planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado.
Ice volcanoes were previously thought to be on several cold moons in the solar system, but Pluto “is so unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Singer told AFP.
“Pluto’s features are the only large field of very large icy volcanoes and they have a unique texture of undulating terrain.”
Singer said it’s hard to determine exactly when the ice volcanoes formed “but we think they could be as young as a few hundred million years old or even younger.”
Unlike much of Pluto, the region has no impact craters, meaning “you can’t rule out that it’s still forming even today,” he said. she adds.
– “Extremely significant” –
Lynnae Quick, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who specializes in ice volcanoes, said the findings were “extremely significant”.
“They suggest that a small body like Pluto, which should have lost much of its internal heat a long time ago, was able to retain enough energy to facilitate widespread geologic activity quite late in its history.” she told AFP.
“These discoveries will lead us to reevaluate the possibilities of maintaining liquid water on small icy worlds far from the Sun.”
David Rothery, professor of planetary geosciences at the Open University, said “we don’t know what could be providing the heat needed to cause these icy volcanoes to erupt.”
The study said one of the structures, the Wright Mons, is about five kilometers (three miles) high and 150 kilometers (90 miles) wide, and has about the same volume as one of the largest Earth’s largest volcanoes – Mauna Loa in Hawaii. .
Rothery told AFP he had been to Mauna Loa and “saw how vast it is”.
“It makes me realize how big Wright Mons is compared to Pluto, which is a much smaller world than ours.”
The analyzed images were taken when New Horizons – an unmanned nuclear-powered spacecraft the size of a small grand piano – became the first spacecraft to pass Pluto in 2015.
It provided the best glimpse yet of Pluto, which was long considered the farthest planet from the Sun before being reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006.
“I like the idea that we have so much left to learn about the solar system,” Singer said.
“Every time we go somewhere new, we find new things we didn’t expect, like newly formed giant ice volcanoes on Pluto.”