The spacecraft conducted a flyby of the dwarf planet and its moons in July 2015, and the information gathered then still rewrites almost everything scientists understand about Pluto.
Pluto was relegated to dwarf planet status in 2006 when the International Astronomical Union created a new definition of planets, and Pluto did not fit the criteria.
The dwarf planet exists at the edge of our solar system in the Kuiper Belt, and it’s the largest of many frozen objects out there orbiting away from the sun. The icy world, which has an average temperature of minus 387 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 232 degrees Celsius), is home to mountains, valleys, glaciers, plains and craters. If you stood on the surface, you would see blue skies with red snow.
New photo analysis has shown a bumpy region on Pluto unlike any other part of the tiny world – or the rest of our cosmic neighborhood.
“We found a field of very large, icy volcanoes unlike anything else we’ve seen in the solar system,” said study author Kelsi Singer, principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
A study detailing the findings published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.
The region is located southwest of the Sputnik Planitia ice cap, which covers an ancient impact basin spanning 1,000 kilometers. Composed largely of bumpy water ice, it is filled with volcanic domes. Two of the largest are known as Wright Mons and Piccard Mons.
Wright Mons is around 4-5 kilometers high and spans 150 kilometers, while Piccard Mons is around 7 kilometers high and 225 kilometers wide.
Wright Mons is considered to have a similar volume to the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, which is one of the largest volcanoes on Earth.
Some of the domes seen in the images merge to form even larger mountains, Singer said. But what could have created them? Ice volcanoes.
Ice volcanoes have been observed elsewhere in our solar system. They move materials from underground to the surface and create new terrain. In this case, it was water that quickly turned to ice once it reached the freezing temperatures of Pluto’s surface.
“The appearance of these features is very different from any volcano in the solar system, whether they are icy examples or rocky volcanoes,” Singer said. “They formed like mountains, but there’s no caldera at the top and they have big bumps all over them.”
While Pluto has a rocky core, scientists have long believed that the planet lacks internal heating, which is needed to drive volcanism. To create the region studied by Singer and his team, there would have been several eruption sites.
The research team also noted that the area has no impact craters, which can be seen through Pluto’s surface, suggesting that ice volcanoes were active relatively recently – and that the Pluto’s interior has more waste heat than expected, Singer said.
“That means Pluto has more internal heat than we thought, which means we don’t fully understand how planetary bodies work,” she said.
The ice volcanoes likely formed “in multiple episodes” and were likely active 100 to 200 million years ago, which is geologically young, Singer added.
If you were to witness an ice volcano erupt on Pluto, it might look a little different than you expected.
“The icy material was likely more of a mixture of ice and water or more like toothpaste as it flowed from a volcanic vent onto Pluto’s surface,” Singer said. “It’s so cold on Pluto’s surface that liquid water can’t stay there for long. In some cases, the flow of matter has formed the massive domes we see, as well as the lumpy terrain found everywhere. in this region.”
When New Horizons flew over this area, the team did not witness any current ice volcanic activity, but they were only able to see the area for about a day. It is possible that the ice volcanoes are still active.
“They could be like volcanoes on Earth that stay inactive for a while and then become active again,” she said.
Pluto once had a subterranean ocean, and the discovery of these ice volcanoes could suggest that the subterranean ocean is still present – and that liquid water may be near the surface. Combined with the idea that Pluto has a hotter interior than previously believed, the findings raise intriguing questions about the dwarf planet’s potential habitability.
“There are still a lot of challenges for any organism trying to survive there,” Singer said. “They would always need a continuous nutrient source, and if the volcanism is episodic and therefore the availability of heat and water is variable, it’s sometimes difficult for the organisms as well.”
Investigating Pluto’s intriguing subsoil would require sending an orbiter to the distant world.
“If we sent a future mission, we could use ice-penetrating radar to peer directly at Pluto and maybe even see what the volcanic plumbing looks like,” Singer said.
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