Geography on Pluto Is Surprisingly Similar to Earth, NASA Reveals


Until the New Horizons spacecraft flew past it in 2015, humanity had very little knowledge about this body, and many were expecting a rather boring, icy asteroid.

WHEN Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, he could not have known that he was opening a whole field of science that is only now coming into its own: the study of planetary landscapes, or comparative planetary morphology.

The likely source of the dune grains is methane ice blown from nearby mountains, although nitrogen ice can not be ruled out, as a source.

A mountain range on the edge of Pluto's Sputnik Planitia ice plain - with dune formations clearly visible in the bottom half of the picture - is shown in this handout image taken during the July 2015 New Horizons mission.

These plains in the left lobe of Pluto's "heart" are known as 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 objective. The dunes themselves are spread over an area about 7 km long.

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. "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". They are formed by transferring crystals on the surface of Pluto.

Combining an analysis of wind streak and dune-like features with spectral and numerical modeling, the scientists determined what might be the underlying architect of dunes on Pluto.

Scientists have found evidence of the existence on Pluto dunes of frozen methane.

The researchers suggest that Pluto's winds could actually be strong enough to transport the grains and create the dunes but only if the grains are already airborne. It would just kind of feel a lot like you're on another sand dune on the Earth'.

Dr. Eric Parteli of the University of Cologne explains that Pluto's low gravity and atmospheric pressure means that the wind strength necessary for sediment transport can be 100,000 times lower than on Earth.

"We knew that every solar system body with an atmosphere and a solid rocky surface has dunes on it, but we didn't know what we'd find on Pluto", Matt Telfer, lead study author and lecturer in physical geography at the University of Plymouth, said in a statement.

"It's an exciting discovery, I'll say that for sure", said Ryan Ewing, a geologist at Texas A&M University who was not involved with this report.

The dunes were likely formed within the last 500,000 years and possibly much more recently.

"Most notably, it remains to be shown how high the dunes are, when they are most active, whether they change" and whether particles can be swept into dunes without rising into the air.

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

The team has yet to determine the height of the dunes; Telfer guesses they're at least tens of meters (yards) tall.