The surface of Pluto is more than just a barren, frozen wasteland: it’s also home to massive ice volcanoes.
Recent analysis of data captured by Nasa’s New Horizons mission shows the mega volcanoes that stand taller than the Alps on the distant dwarf planet.
Scientists think that Pluto’s ice volcanoes are like nothing else found in the solar system.
Rather than being created from rock, they’re formed from frozen ammonia, nitrogen, methane, and water ice.
Scientists reckon these ‘cryovolcanoes’ – numbering perhaps 10 or more – stand anywhere from six-tenths of a mile (1 km) to 4-1/2 miles (7 km) tall.
Unlike Earth volcanoes that spew gases and molten rock, these cryovolcanoes extrude large amounts of ice – apparently frozen water rather than some other frozen material – that may have the consistency of toothpaste, they said.
‘Finding these features does indicate that Pluto is more active, or geologically alive, than we previously thought it would be,’ said planetary scientist Kelsi Singer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
‘The combination of these features being geologically recent, covering a vast area and most likely being made of water ice is surprising because it requires more internal heat than we thought Pluto would have at this stage of its history,’ said Singer, the lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Communications.
Pluto, which is smaller than Earth’s moon and has a diameter of about 1,400 miles (2,380 km), orbits about 3.6 billion miles (5.8 billion km) away from the sun. Which is roughly 40 times farther than Earth’s orbit.
Images and data analyzed in this new study were obtained in 2015 by the New Horizons mission.
The study found not only extensive evidence for cryovolcanism but also that it has been long-lived, not a single episode, said Southwest Research Institute planetary scientist Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator and study co-author.
‘What’s most fascinating about Pluto is that it’s so complex – as complex as the Earth or Mars despite its smaller size and high distance from the sun,’ Stern said.
‘This was a real surprise from the New Horizons flyby, and the new result about cryovolcanism re-emphasizes this in a dramatic way.’
Like Earth and our solar system’s other planets, Pluto formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Based on an absence of impact craters that normally would accumulate over time, it appears its cryovolcanoes are relatively recent – formed in the past few hundred million years.
‘That is young on a geologic timescale. Because there are almost no impact craters, it is possible these processes are ongoing even in the present day,’ Singer said.
Pluto has lots of active geology, including flowing nitrogen ice glaciers and a cycle in which nitrogen ice vaporizes during the day and condenses back to ice at night – a process constantly changing the planetary surface.
‘Pluto is a geological wonderland,’ Singer said.
‘Many areas of Pluto are completely different from each other. If you just had a few pieces of a puzzle of Pluto you would have no idea what the other areas looked like.’
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