September 24, 2018

Pluto has dunes made of tiny frozen grains of methane

04 June 2018, 04:23 | Edward Lowe

Pluto has dunes made of tiny frozen grains of methane

Scientists surprised to find dunes on Pluto that are made of tiny grains of methane

It resides in the far corner of the solar system at an average of about 4 billion miles from the sun.

An global team of geographers, physicists and planetary scientists analyzed detailed images of the dwarf planet's surface from July 2015, captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. There, temperatures plunge to minus 380 Fahrenheit.

Pluto's surface is mostly nitrogen, which is solid at the average temperature of around -230°C. The spacecraft also uncovered Pluto's versions of familiar geography. Unlike Earth mountains, these are composed entirely of water ice.

A study published today in the journal Science confirms that the icy dwarf planet has dunes of its own.

Sand dunes rise next to Pluto's mountains.

NASA released New Horizons images shortly after the flyby, including an iconic picture of a heart-shaped basin on Pluto. You might not know this region by name, but you've seen plenty of photos of it. Sputnik Planitia forms the left side of Pluto's famous "heart" feature.

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After scientists observed dunes on Pluto that were lurking close to mountains and the Sputnik Planitia ice plain, they conducted numerical and spectral modeling, as well as spatial analysis on the area.

Jani Radebaughis, the co-author of the study and an associate professor of the geological sciences department at the Brigham Young University.

Wind could create the dunes out of fine particles once they're airborne.

The dunes were likely formed within the last 500,000 years and possibly much more recently.

That said, it's not a sure thing that these grains are made through sublimation. "The way that they're recognizing the dunes on the surface is the same technique we've used to identify dunes on Mars".

Earth, obviously, has dunes of sand all across its surface, and Saturn's huge moon Titan plays host to dunes of methane and ethane on its icy surface as well. Quartz fragments commonly supply the sand for Earth dunes. Methane ice breaks into tiny particles.

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Debate may still continue about the kind of body Pluto is, but we know now that Pluto is dark, cold and windy - characteristics it may share with its namesake, the Roman god of the Underworld.

Researchers liken the dunes to those at White Sands, New Mexico, or California's Death Valley. That's enough to sculpt floating particles into a dune shape. The grains of methane are then lifted by this gas into the thin atmosphere of the Pluto. Pluto's gentle winds then carried and deposited the grains.

A third factor important in the construction of dunes is the ability of the grains to be moved by the wind. But the researchers haven't ruled out that these could be made of nitrogen ice.

McKinnon said the sublimation theory was "somewhat speculative".

"I would look for dunes in the next thinnest atmosphere we can find", McKinnon said.

The crucial finding, in Radebaugh's view, is that the dunes exist.

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Discoveries that remind Radebaugh of home. 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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