Pluto has ‘Earth-like characteristics,’ study says

Cristina Cross
June 2, 2018

Talk about weird science: Astronomers have discovered dunes of ice on Pluto, saying that it's evidence the distant dwarf planet has "Earth-like characteristics".

Yet mild winds blowing across Pluto's surface at speeds of some 19-25 miles (30-40 kilometres) per hour have forged these ripples at the border of an ice plain and mountain range, said the report in the journal Science. Pluto has a system of dunes, but they're not made from sand.

This photo taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft during its July 2015 flyby of Pluto shows the mountain range on the edge of the dwarf planet's Sputnik Planitia ice plain.

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 gentle winds then carried and deposited the grains.

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.

This is a significant discovery, because dunes are only produced when specific conditions occur, and recognition of these conditions on Pluto suggests that the minor planet might be much more active than previously envisaged.

Alex Blair was born and raised in the Santa Fe area Alex has worked as a freelance journalist for almost a decade and written for several large blogs including Joystiq and CNET.

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The core of the comet idea is that the amount of nitrogen inside the huge glacier that sprawls across Pluto is consistent with the amount that would be expected if it had been formed by the collision and agglomeration of a billion bodies like 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the famous duck-shaped comet that was orbited by Rosetta and landed on by Philae.

The scientists conclude that the dunes are 0.4-1km apart and that they are made up of particles of methane ice between 200-300 micrometers in diameter - roughly the size of grains of sand.

Researchers liken the dunes to those at White Sands, New Mexico, or California's Death Valley. Pluto has many such similarities with Earth in its landscape, dunes and more, all though it is far away from the Sun.

"We have been focusing on what's close to us", said Radebaugh, "but there's a wealth of information in the distant reaches of the solar system too".

On Pluto, the sun turns solids directly into gas. "Although nitrogen ice can not be ruled out". Scientists know this because of the shape of the piles of sand whose dark streaks allowed them to retrace the direction from which the wind blew. We've found them on Mars, Venus, and Saturn's moon Titan. It's possible the dunes were formed even more recently.

"On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to maintain transport", said co-author Eric Parteli.

The team has yet to determine the height of the dunes; Telfer guesses they're at least tens of meters (yards) tall. In just six short months, on New Year's Day 2019, New Horizons will fly past the tiny trans-Neptunian object 2014 MU69, located about a billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto.

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