Published: Sun, June 03, 2018
Sci-tech | By April Francis

Grainy, icy 'dunes' found on Pluto

Grainy, icy 'dunes' found on Pluto

Pluto is covered with surprising dunes made of methane ice, which have formed relatively recently despite the frigid dwarf planet's very thin atmosphere, global researchers said on Thursday.

The scientists noted that the dunes on Pluto appear to be largely composed of icy, grit-sized shards of methane, possibly containing a small amount of frozen nitrogen blended in with it.

Mild winds blow across the Pluto's surface at a speed of about nineteen to twenty-five miles which corresponds to approximately thirty to forty kilometers per hour.

"The likely source of the dune grains is methane ice blown from nearby mountains", said the Science report. "Accordingly, much work is left to do to understand dunes on Pluto".

Interestingly, it was found to actually be helpful to the creation of these dunes when planets have lower gravity and atmospheric pressure, as the University of Cologne's Dr. Eric Parteli explained.

"He quotes the late Sir Patrick Moore, the famous BBC Sky at Night presenter, describing Pluto in 1955 as "...plunged in everlasting dusk, silent, barren, and touched with the chill of death..." and says that that perspective has to shift. It's possible the dunes were formed even more recently.

The study, published in the journal Science, reveals the findings of an worldwide team of scientists who analyzed images of Pluto snapped in July 2015. "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 new discovery "shows us that Pluto's atmosphere and surface are interacting in a way that geologically/geomorphologically alters the surface", said study lead author Matt Telfer, a lecturer in physical geography at the University of Plymouth in England. Pluto's mild winds then carried the particles to the area where the dunes on Pluto are now located.

Earth, obviously, has dunes of sand all across its surface, and Saturn's huge moon Titan plays host to dunes of methane and ethane on its icy surface as well.

The new findings are significant, as it shows how even the barely there atmosphere of Pluto can influence and shape the geological processes on the dwarf planet's surface greatly.

"It is far more interesting than any of us dreamed, and tells us that these very distant bodies are well worth visiting", Brigham Young University planetary scientist Jani Radebaugh said. They suggest surface nitrogen ice transformed into gas that lifted methane particles.

NASA released New Horizons images shortly after the flyby, including an iconic picture of a heart-shaped basin on Pluto.

"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".

"These are not just balls of ice far out in space", he said, adding that frozen worlds on the fringes of our solar system, like the dwarf planet Pluto, might have been active early on. For New Horizons, that opening will come on New Year's Day 2019, when it cruises to an object in the Kuiper belt called 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule - meaning beyond the borders of the known world.

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