In a historic discovery, New Horizons has revealed strange formations which look like ice volcanoes on Pluto. The structures, which are the first of their kind to be reported in our outer solar system, were identified during the epic flyby of the dwarf planet, which occurred on July 14.
Topographic maps were created after the reconnaissance study which was conducted by NASA’s space probe on Pluto’s surface. These 3-D images include 2 mountains, which are more than 3 miles high, and over 100 miles in length.
Researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration now speculate that these formations, which have been called Piccard Mons and Wright Mons, might in fact be ice volcanoes.
Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher with NASA’s Ames Research Center says that the structures look just like large mountains, with a gaping hole at the summit, and this is greatly reminiscent of volcanoes on Earth.
However, unlike formations encountered on our planet, which release molten rock, volcanoes on Pluto are believed to spew a mixture of other substances, such as nitrogen, ammonia, methane and water ice. Therefore, they might be qualified as “cryovolcanoes”, although for now there isn’t full certainty regarding this theory.
While scientists admit there might be another explanation for these geologic structures, if speculations are proven correct, then the cavities at the summit might have appeared as radioactive materials from Pluto’s depths generated heat. This caused streams of ice and other volatile components to erupt and rocks to be displaced.
Similarly, the “hummocky” appearance of the mountain sides might have resulted as volcanic stream released from the top fell across the flanks, reaching the plains.
Proving the presence of cryovolcanoes on Pluto would further deeper understanding of the small icy object located in the Kuiper Belt. Its geological and atmospheric structure might become more clear this way, especially since such peculiar characteristics have never been encountered before.
It may be that other mind-blowing discoveries are bound to follow, since just 20% of the data stored on New Horizons has been broadcast, while the rest will take at least a year to reach Earth.
50 reports with more remarkable findings collected by NASA’s spacecraft will be presented this week, during the 47th Annual Meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American astronomical Society (AAS), taking place in National Harbor, Maryland.
For instance, one such study has shown that four of Pluto’s natural satellites are rotating at much higher velocities than they should’ve been, given the fact that the dwarf planet’s gravity should’ve reduced their speed till now.
Also, Pluto has a surprisingly smooth, heart-shaped area, which has been called Tombaugh Regio. The presence of such “topographic blisters” suggests that certain processes have erased craters in that region, but it’s unclear exactly what those were.
Another discovery is that the exobase, which is the transitional area between the atmosphere and space, is much cooler and more compact than previously thought, stretching across a distance two and a half times greater than Pluto.
As researchers explain, it seems that the New Horizons mission has been calling into question everything they had thought they knew about the dwarf planet. This is why they jokingly say that this recent observation of Pluto can be awarded an “A for exploration” and an “F for predictability”.
However, that’s what makes space discoveries so important: they open astronomers to novel explanations and ideas, which had previously seemed inconceivable.
Image Source: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory