September 24, 2018

Wondrous dunes on Pluto are made of grains of frozen…

02 June 2018, 10:47 | Edward Lowe

A high-resolution color-enhanced image of Pluto

A high-resolution color-enhanced image of Pluto

It was not until 1994, when the Hubble Space Telescope took the first direct images of Pluto that any compositional variation across the planet could be seen - and even then the question of what it was made up of was not resolved. An global research team on Thursday conveyed the fact that the Pluto is covered with surprising dunes of methane ice. Scientists came to the conclusion that the slopes of the mountains on Pluto snow consisting of methane and possibly nitrogen, which under certain conditions is transferred by the winds in the valley. Thought to be relatively recent, the parallel rows of dunes are located in Pluto's heart-shaped region at the base of mountains as tall as the Alps and formed from giant blocks of ice with frosty methane snowcaps. They believe that the methane ice could've been thrown into the atmosphere by the melting of surrounding nitrogen ice, or they could've been blown down from the mountains near where they were found. Research shows that the dunes are spread across an area that is less than around 45 miles (75 kilometers) across. "It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around -230 degrees Celsius, we still get dunes forming".

"We understand now that this celestial body on the outskirts of the Solar system is not a frozen planetoid - actually is a dynamic world that is constantly changing and to this day", says Telfer.

The researchers at SwRI in Texas aren't ruling out other theories for the formation of Pluto, which sits far out at the edge of the solar system in the Kuiper Belt.

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For some time, scientists have been intrigued by odd, regularly spaced ridges, that stuck out of Pluto's cold, dark plains like thumbprints pressed into ice.

On Earth, we have a rich variety of dunes dependent on the composition and size of the grains and the strength and direction of the wind.

The new discovery "shows us that Pluto's atmosphere and surface are interacting in a way that geologically/geomorphologically alters the surface", said study lead author Matt Telfer, a lecturer in physical geography at the University of Plymouth in England.

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Modeling by the team shows that Pluto's moderate winds (which can reach between 19 and 25 miles per hour, or 30-40 kmh) can create these dunes once the grains are airborne.

Eric Parteli, lecturer in Computational Geosciences at the University of Cologne, said, "The considerably lower gravity of Pluto, and the extremely low atmospheric pressure, means the winds needed to maintain sediment transport can be a hundred times lower [than on Earth]".

Telfer and his colleagues have calculated that the dunes may be on the surface of Pluto, where the winds blow the strongest winds on the planet, reaching speeds of 10 meters per second.

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Scientists were surprised to find dunes given Pluto's thin, weak atmosphere. Scientists think they have been formed in the last 500,000 years. An astronomer unrelated to the study told Gizmodo that there needs to be higher-resolution images of the structures to determine whether or not they may be dunes. At the moment the space probe New Horizons is approaching another object in the Kuiper belt TRANS-Neptunian asteroid 2014 MU69.

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