Published: Sun, June 03, 2018
Sci-tech | By Brandy Patterson

Wondrous dunes on Pluto are made of grains of frozen methane

Wondrous dunes on Pluto are made of grains of frozen methane

Scientists have discovered dunes on Pluto's surface, which are likely to have been formed by methane ice grains released into its atmosphere.

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.

Dunes are formed when the wind blows grains of sand into a sheltered area, where it accumulates over time and develops into an increasingly larger mound. 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. There's no surface rock on Pluto that could produce sand. 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 objective.

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The researchers also think that the dunes are young, rather than ancient, and might still be active.

Pluto, smaller than Earth's moon with a diameter of about 1,400 miles (2,380 km), orbits roughly 3.6 billion miles (5.8 billion km) away from the sun, nearly 40 times farther than Earth's orbit, with a surface marked by plains, mountains, craters and valleys. New Horizons imagery has revealed thousands of such depressions across Sputnik Planitia, and a series of aligned pits was the most viable alternative explanation for the dune features, Telfer and his colleagues wrote in the new study, which was published online today (May 31) in the journal Science. The dwarf planet hangs out at the far reaches of the Solar System and it's an incredibly chilly place to be. Previously it was assumed that Pluto's atmosphere is too sparse and does not possess the qualities that are inherent in the atmosphere of our planet - for example, can't form dunes and dunes. While alternated light and dark education, distinguished correct and identical shape, resembled the dunes of Mars, Titan and Earth. "It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around 385 degrees below zero, we still get dunes forming".

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.

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The study suggests that those grains of methane are produced through a process known as sublimation, where solid nitrogen actually converts directly into a gas, skipping the liquid phase.

The research was led by scientists from the University of Plymouth in Britain, University of Cologne in Germany and Brigham Young University in the United States.

Sand dunes rise next to Pluto's mountains.

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"When we first saw the New Horizons images, we thought instantly that these were dunes but it was really surprising because we know there is not much of an atmosphere". In just six short months, on New Year's Day 2019, New Horizons will fly past the tiny trans-Neptunian object 2014 MU69, located about a billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto.

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