Research

Pluto has 'ice dunes' and 'Earth-like characteristics'

Pluto has 'ice dunes' and 'Earth-like characteristics'

Scientists have discovered dunes on Pluto made of tiny frozen grains of methane. No other team had plans to investigate the formations, so she joined up with Telfer and members of the New Horizons mission. "This is one of the windiest spots on Pluto", Telfer said, "and the winds are in exactly the right direction".

Within our solar system, dunes are more rare than you might think. It could have been made from lumps of ice with a chemical composition closer to that of our Sun.

Pluto's thin atmosphere means there is never more than a light breeze on the surface - enough to shape the dunes, but not enough to create them.

The research is yet another moment to reflect on just how surprisingly diverse Pluto has been revealed to be. Earlier, when the spacecraft passed Pluto in mid of 2015, it had sent the images of icy world surface with dune-like features. Their findings, "Dunes on Pluto, have been published in Science". In 2014 and 2015 ESA's Rosetta followed the comet around the Sun and witnessed active jets of material flying from its surface. This view is projected from a point 1,118 miles (1,800 km) above Pluto's equator, looking northeast over the dark, cratered Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth expanse of icy plains called Sputnik Planitia.

He noted there are dunes on the scorching surface of Venus under a dense atmosphere and out in the distant reaches of the solar system at minus 230 degrees Celsius (minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit) under a thin atmosphere. This also lifts the methane particles, which mostly likely come from the nearby mountains. "Put together, we have found that these combined processes can form dunes under normal, everyday wind conditions on Pluto", said Dr Eric Parteli, Lecturer in Computational Geosciences at the University of Cologne. They now plan to carry on investigating the dunes through computer simulations, which will in turn further enlighten them about how Pluto's winds shaped its geography.

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If you take a look at this photo without knowing the source of it, you'll say it's an image of a beach with sand dunes.

"'Much work is left to do to understand dunes on Pluto", wrote Cornell University's Alexander Hayes wrote in a companion article. 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.

Nonetheless, he described the Telfer team's argument for uplifted methane granules as convincing. Sastrugi - parallel wave-like ridges caused by winds on a hard snow surface; barchan - crescent mounds that tend to be wider than they are long; and seif - linear dunes with two slip faces, are just three of the very different types of dune that are found on Earth. The area where the dunes are is about 75 kilometers (47 miles) across. It's expected to zip past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule - orbiting 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto - on January 1.

Flight controllers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, will rouse New Horizons from a five-month electronic hibernation next week.


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