Research

Pluto's 'Ice Dunes' Are Proof It Has 'Earth-like Characteristics'

Pluto's 'Ice Dunes' Are Proof It Has 'Earth-like Characteristics'

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.

Now, though, thanks to the spectacular images returned by the New Horizons spacecraft that flew past Pluto in 2015, we know that, far from being a dreary and undistinguished body, Pluto is a lively and active object that displays a fantastic variety of landscapes.

"We have been focusing on what's close to us", said Radebaugh, "but there's a wealth of information in the distant reaches of the solar system too".

For some time, scientists have been intrigued by unusual, regularly spaced ridges, that stuck out of Pluto's cold, dark plains like thumbprints pressed into ice. The ice is a mixture of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane; according to the model, methane is still solid as nitrogen vaporises, and so grains of methane ice are thrown from the surface to be caught by the wind.

The researchers now plan to continue their investigations into the history of Pluto's dunes through computer simulations, which will enable them to expand knowledge of the role wind has played in Pluto's wider geology. Within these highly detailed images, researchers noticed what looked to be an extensive system of unusual dunes stretching 75 miles along the boundary of Pluto's massive Al-Idrisi Montes mountain range and Sputnik Planitia - a nitrogen-ice plain that forms the left lobe of the planet's famous "heart".

The light gray and whitish bumps were first exposed by NASA's New Horizons space probe in its 2015 flyover.

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By Earth's standards, you could hardly imagine a stranger world than frigid, tiny Pluto. So, it's fair to call these dunes, but what are they?

So far, scientists have found dunes on Mars, Venus, Titan (Saturn's moon) and on a comet. however, Pluto's dunes are the only ones that are made from methane. In the neighborhood there stretched a chain of icy mountains with a height of about 5 km. the Researchers came to the conclusion that the dunes are from each other at a distance of 400-1000 m and are composed of frozen methane ice, the size of which the diameter is about 200-300 micrometers.

These dunes are largely undisturbed on Pluto's icy crust, which suggests that they were formed within the past 500,000 years - or even more recently.

"On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to release sand particles into the air, but winds that are 20% weaker are then sufficient to maintain transport", said co-author Dr. Eric Parteli, from the Department of Geosciences at the University of Cologne. "The considerably lower gravity of Pluto, and the extremely low atmospheric pressure, means the winds needed to maintain sediment transport can be 50 times lower".

"We knew that everything in the solar system with an atmosphere and a solid surface had dunes, but we did not know what we would find on Pluto", says lead author Matt Telfer, a professor at the University of Plymouth. Comparative planetary morphology will be the key that helps us decipher how these planets have formed and evolved.

"Put together, we have found that these combined processes can form dunes under normal, everyday wind conditions on Pluto".


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