Surprising New Discovery On Pluto Hints At The Possibility Of Life

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Following its 2015 flyby of Pluto, the New Horizon is still rewriting almost all of what is known about the dwarf planet.

Pluto’s icy volcanic region can be seen in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. The blue markings show how past volcanic processes may have occurred. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Isaac Herrera/Kelsi Singer

Ice volcanoes have been discovered in Pluto’s images by NASA’s New Horizons probe.

Nearly every aspect of what scientists know about Pluto has been changed since the spacecraft’s flyby of the dwarf planet and its moons in July 2015.

When the International Astronomical Union revised its definition of planets in 2006, Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status since it didn’t meet the requirements.

The dwarf planet is the largest of the numerous frozen objects in the Kuiper Belt, which is located on the edge of our solar system and orbits a vast distance away from the sun.

Mountains, valleys, glaciers, plains, and craters can be found on the cold globe, which has an average temperature of minus 232 degrees Celsius (minus 387 degrees Fahrenheit).

You would see blue skies and red snow if you were to stand on the surface.

Interesting Discovery

NASA’s New Horizons mission captured this image of Wright Mons on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 48,000km. Credit: NASA’s New Horizons mission captured this image of Wright Mons on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 48,000 km./NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto has a rough patch that stands out from the rest of the small world and the rest of our cosmic neighborhood, according to a new photo study.

“We found a field of very large icy volcanoes that look nothing like anything else we have seen in the solar system,” said study author Kelsi Singer, a senior research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The results of the study were published in the journal Nature Communications.

The area is situated southwest of the Sputnik Planitia ice sheet, which protects a 1,000 km wide ancient impact basin.

It is largely composed of wavy water ice and is covered in volcanic domes.

The Piccard Mons and Wright Mons are two of the biggest.

Wright Mons stands between 4 and 5 km tall and is 150 km wide, while Piccard Mons is 7 km high and 225 km wide.

One of the largest volcanoes on Earth, Mauna Loa in Hawaii, and Wright Mons is thought to be comparable in size.

Photos of purple luminous clouds encircling an exploding star that have never before been seen

An icy creator

A view of an icy volcanic region on Pluto. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Isaac Herrera/Kelsi Singer

According to Singer, some of the domes visible in the photographs combine to create even larger mountains.

What, then, might have produced them? Volcanic ice.

Others in our solar system have seen ice volcanoes.

They alter the topography by bringing subterranean material to the surface.

In this instance, water swiftly turned to ice when it came in contact with Pluto’s subfreezing surface temperatures.

“The way these features look is very different than any volcanoes across the solar system, either icy examples or rocky volcanoes,” Singer said.

”They formed as mountains, but there is no caldera at the top, and they have large bumps all over them.”

Although Pluto has a rocky core, researchers have long thought that the planet lacks the necessary inner heating to promote volcanism.

There would have been a number of eruption sites to form the region Singer and her team researched.

The lack of impact craters in the area, which is seen over Pluto’s surface, was another finding made by the research team. This finding shows that the ice volcanoes were active relatively recently and that Pluto’s interior retains more residual heat than was anticipated, according to Singer.

“This means Pluto has more internal heat than we thought it would, which means we don’t fully understand how planetary bodies work,” she said.

According to geological standards, the ice volcanoes were likely active as recently as 100 million to 200 million years ago and produced “in several episodes,” according to Singer.

It might appear a little different than you imagine if you saw an ice volcano erupt on Pluto.

“The icy material was probably more of a slushy mix of ice and water or more like toothpaste while it flowed out of a volcanic vent onto the surface of Pluto,” Singer said.

“It is so cold on the surface of Pluto that liquid water cannot remain there for long. In some cases, the flow of material formed the massive domes that we see, as well as the lumpy terrain found everywhere in this region.”

The team aboard New Horizons was only able to see this region for about a day, however, they were unable to observe any active ice volcanoes at the time of the flyby. The ice volcanoes can well still be erupting.

She suggested that they might resemble dormant volcanoes on Earth that later erupt again.

Is there life out there?

Finding these ice volcanoes may indicate that Pluto formerly had a subterranean ocean. If so, liquid water may be present near the surface of the planet.

The results also suggest that Pluto’s interior is warmer than previously thought, which raises intriguing issues regarding Pluto’s possible habitability.

“There are still a lot of challenges for any organisms trying to survive there,” Singer said.

“They would still need some source of continual nutrients, and if the volcanism is episodic and thus the heat and water availability is variable, that is sometimes tough for organisms as well.”

Pluto’s interesting subsurface would entail the launch of an orbiter to the faraway planet.

“If we did send a future mission, we could use ice-penetrating radar to peer directly into Pluto and possibly even see what the volcanic plumbing looks like,” Singer said.

Reference(s): Research paper

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