NASA reveals evidence of cryovolcanos on Pluto
NASA has identifiedevidence of ice volcanoes present on the surface of the dwarf planetPluto. The news comes as New Horizon's team discusses newscientific discoveries made by the spacecraft during its July flyby,at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences(DPS) of the American Astronomical Society, in Maryland.
Simply put, NewHorizons has transformed our understanding of Pluto. Where before ourbest view was a pixilated Hubble image, weare now presented with a treasure trove of high-resolution imagesdetailing a celestial body that boasts a stunningly diverse range ofgeological processes and environments.
The New Horizons teamcombined multiple images of Pluto's surface to create a 3D map ofthe suspected cryovolcanoes, which have been unofficially namedWright Mons and Piccard Mons. Wright Mons, located to the south ofSputnik Planum, towers two miles (3.2 km) above the surrounding landscape andspans around 100 miles (160 km), whilst the taller Piccard Monsstretches a full three miles (4.8 km) up toward the dwarf planet's tenuousatmosphere.
A cryovolcano differssignificantly from volcanoes located on planets closer to the Sun,such as on Earth or Venus, which are known to erupt with molten rockand ash. A cryovolcano is the result of volcanic processes that takeplace on more distant icy planets and moons. It is theorized that aneruption from Wright Mons or Piccard Mons would eject vast quantitiesof a slurry-like cocktail of water ice, nitrogen, ammonia andmethane.
"These are bigmountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth thatgenerally means one thing – a volcano," states Oliver White, NewHorizons postdoctoral researcher with NASA’s Ames Research Center,Moffett Field, California. "If they are volcanic, then the summitdepression would likely have formed via collapse as material iserupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountainflanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have travelleddown from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why theyare hummocky, and what they are made of, we don't yet know."
Should further studiescorroborate the theory that Wright Mons and Piccard Mons are indeedcryovolcanoes, the discovery will have significant implications oncurrent models regarding the dwarf planet's geological andatmospheric evolution.
Another study countedthe number, size and spread of asteroid impacts across Pluto'ssurface in order to determine the relative ages of the diversegeological regions. Areas with heavier cratering are considered to beolder than surface regions formed more recently.
It was discovered thatsome of the most heavily cratered, and therefore most ancient regionsare estimated to be roughly four billion years old – dating back tothe early solar system. Conversely, other regions, such as SputnikPlanum, exhibit no signs of asteroid impact whatsoever, meaning thatthey must have been formed some time in the last 10 million years.
An analysis of craterdistribution also led to the discovery of so called "middle-aged"surface areas, leading NASA scientists to the conclusion that Plutohas been geologically active for much of its existence.
The impact map may alsolead to a rethink on current models regarding the make-up of theKuiper belt. The prevalence of large craters on Pluto compared to therelatively rare smaller craters is inconsistent with models thatsuggest that Kuiper belt bodies grew through an amalgamation process,suggesting instead that the rocky constituents of the belt, which maybe tens of miles in length, were instead simply born large.
Yet another studyhighlights the unusual nature of Pluto's moons. Based on NewHorizons' observations, it appears that the gravitational influenceof Pluto's largest moon, Charon, is preventing the dwarf planet'sother wards from taking on traditional satellite characteristics.
Most moons orbitingplanetary bodies in our solar system are tidally locked, meaning thatthey only ever present one face to their parent. The disturbancecreated by Charon's presence has led to Pluto's smaller moon'sspinning wildly out of sync, with the dwarf planet's most distantmoon, Hydra, rotating 89 times in the period it takes to complete asingle orbit.
New Horizons willcontinue to send back images and data as it progresses through itsyear long information transfer, shedding light on ever moregeological wonders at work on the strange dwarf planet, and hermoons.