Published: Sat, June 02, 2018
Sci-tech | By Brandy Patterson

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

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

Nearly three years have passed since New Horizons performed its historic flyby of Pluto, but we might just be getting started when it comes to the discoveries it will bring.

Telfer and his colleagues examined Sputnik Planitia in detail, finding a region of distinctive ripples, the dunes of Pluto which you can see in the image above. There's plenty of nitrogen ice adorning the glacier nearby from the dunes while methane is likely sourced from the snowcaps of nearby mountains like al-Idrisi Montes, which drifts down into the plane.

They saw 357 regularly spaced pale ridges and six darker wind streaks across 46 miles of the Sputnik Planitia, a sprawling ice plain that makes up one of Pluto's largest surface features.

Pluto's heart-shaped Sputnik Planitia. Generally speaking, dunes are sculpted by winds and Pluto's atmosphere, 1,000 times thinner than ours, was thought to be too weak to generate strong enough gusts for this goal. 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. Pluto's mild winds then carried the particles to the area where the dunes on Pluto are now located.

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.

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"What we have now is evidence of a diverse, dynamic and active geological surface", Telfer told Gizmodo. "We have been focusing on what's close to us, but there's a wealth of information in the distant reaches of the Solar System too".

The wind is generated as air flows downhill from the neighbouring mountains and also as frozen material sublimates - or turns directly into gas.

"On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to release sand particles into the air, but winds that are 20 percent weaker are then sufficient to maintain transport", says Dr Eric Parteli, Lecturer in Computational Geosciences at the University of Cologne, and study co-author.

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. "However, despite being 30 times farther away from the Sun as the Earth, it turns out Pluto still has Earth-like characteristics". There was some doubt about whether Pluto's extremely thin atmosphere, mainly nitrogen with minor amounts of methane and carbon monoxide, could muster the wind needed to form such features.

The researchers knew that every solar system body with an atmosphere and a solid rocky surface has dunes, but that they didn't know what they might find on Pluto, he said.

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Scientists strongly believe that the undisturbed dunes were likely formed within the last five lakh years.

The team has yet to determine the height of the dunes.

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

It's now heading towards an object in the Kuiper Belt nicknamed Ultima Thule, about 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto, on January 1.

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