Pluto appears to have the power to pull us back into the mysteries it hides on the surface nearly 16 years after it was declared unfit to be a planet.
A new study suggests that mysterious ice volcanoes have been discovered on the surface, unlike anything else in the solar system.
The team has discovered a region of large domes and rises flanked by hills, mounds, and depressions formed by material expelled from beneath the surface of this distant, icy planet, led by astronomers from the New Horizons mission.
Moreover, multiple eruption sites and a large volume of material are required to create this terrain, which consists of multiple, several-kilometre-high domes, some of which merge to form more complex platforms.
According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications, modelling suggests that Pluto may have a subsurface water-rich ocean that exists nearly 100200km or more below the surface of the distant planet, at the base of the icy shell.
PLUTO HAS RETURNED TO LIFE
The New Horizons mission captured images of two large mounds known as Wright Mons and Piccard Mon, which are now thought to be cryovolcanoes.
The team analysed the geomorphology and composition of an area southwest of Pluto’s bright, icy “heart,” Sputnik Planitia, led by Dr. Kelsi Singer, New Horizons Deputy Project Scientist from the Southwest Research Institute.
Multiple large domes, ranging in height from 1 to 7 kilometres and in diameter from 30 to 100 kilometres or more, can be found in this cryovolcanic region, which sometimes merges to form more complex structures.
“The particular structures we studied are unique to Pluto, at least so far. Rather than erosion or other geologic processes, cryovolcanic activity appears to have extruded large amounts of material onto Pluto’s exterior and resurfaced an entire region of the hemisphere New Horizons saw up close,” Singer said in a statement.
As these are new geologic terrains that required a lot of material to build, it’s possible that Pluto’s interior structure retained heat in the recent past, allowing water-ice-rich materials to be deposited on the surface. According to the researchers, other geologic processes that could have caused the features are unlikely.
New Horizons has been UNLOCKED
The images were taken by NASA’s New Horizons mission in 2015, and they show a variety of geological features on Pluto, such as mountains, valleys, plains, and glaciers.
Scientists were intrigued by the terrain because the frigid temperatures at Pluto’s distance were expected to result in a frozen, geologically inactive world.
“One of the benefits of exploring new places in the solar system is that we find things we weren’t expecting. These giant strange-looking cryovolcanoes observed by New Horizons are a great example of how we are expanding our knowledge of volcanic processes and geologic activity on icy worlds,” Singer added.
What is the New Horizon Mission?
Nasa launched the New Horizons mission in 2006, the same year Pluto was demoted to dwarf status. After reaching the icy planet in 2015, it remains the only spacecraft to explore Pluto and its moons. The spacecraft has been looking for objects in the Kuiper Belt, a region of the solar system that stretches from 30 AU, near Neptune’s orbit, to 50 AU from the Sun.
New Horizons is a NASA mission to study Pluto, its moons, and other objects in the Kuiper Belt, a region of the solar system that stretches from 30 AU, near Neptune’s orbit, to 50 AU from the Sun.
It was the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers programme, which is a medium-class, competitively selected series of missions led by principal investigators. (Juno and OSIRIS-REx are also part of the programme.)
New Horizons was the first spacecraft to encounter Pluto, a relic from the formation of the solar system.
The spacecraft had travelled farther and for a longer period of time (more than nine years) than any previous deep-space spacecraft ever launched by the time, it arrived at the Pluto system.
The spacecraft’s design can be traced back to the CONTOUR and TIMED spacecraft, both of which were built by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
New Horizons carries a cylindrical radioisotope thermoelectric generator (a spare from the Cassini mission) that provided about 250 watts of power at launch, in addition to its suite of scientific instruments (decaying to 200 watts by the time of the Pluto encounter).
The Centaur’s upper stage fired for nine minutes after reaching the initial Earth orbit at about 105 130 miles (167 213 kilometres) to boost the payload to an elliptical orbit that stretched to the asteroid belt.
New Horizons observed Pluto’s other satellites, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx, in addition to collecting data on Pluto and Charon (the Charon flyby was at about 17,900 miles or 28,800 kilometres).
New Horizons data revealed that Pluto and its satellites are far more complex than previously thought, with scientists particularly surprised by the current level of activity on Pluto’s surface. Scientists had to fundamentally revise earlier models of the system due to the atmospheric haze and lower than expected atmospheric escape rate.
Pluto, in fact, shows signs of massive atmospheric pressure changes and may have had liquid volatiles running or standing on its surface in the past. Today, there are indications that Pluto may have an internal water-ice ocean.
The New Horizons mission has been extended until 2021 in order to explore more Kuiper Belt objects.