Pluto's Methane Dunes Add One More Earth-Like Feature to the Planet

Cristina Cross
June 3, 2018

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

By analyzing the dunes and wind streaks and then combining the data with spectral and numerical modelling, the researchers found that sublimation - the process of turning solids to gas - creates sand-like grains of methane.

The winds would blow at an approximate speed of 30 to 40 km/h. The ice is a mixture of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane; according to the model, methane is still solid as nitrogen vaporises, and so grains of methane ice are thrown from the surface to be caught by the wind. "What makes this discovery surprising", writes Alexander Hayes in a related Perspective, "is that the sediment can be mobilized despite Pluto's tenuous atmosphere, whose surface pressure (1 Pa) is 100,000 times lower than Earth's".

Scientists are seeing the surface of Pluto for the first time.

Scientists were impressed to find dunes on Pluto because it has a thin atmosphere.

"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.

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".

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A scientific team headed by British researchers published the findings yesterday in the journal Science. Scientists think they have been formed in the last 500,000 years.

"It's really exciting just to be able to look at this world and recognise that it's not just a frozen icy blob in the outer reaches of the Solar System but really we're seeing a dynamic world still changing, still forming today", he said.

They suggest nitrogen ice coating the surface of Sputnik Planitia transformed into gas that lifted methane particles into the air.

"I was looking at the top corner of the glacier, right next to the mountains, and I could see long, straight, regular ridges", Jani Radebaugh, a Brigham Young University geology professor and planetary scientist who had been studying NASA's high resolution photographs of Pluto, said in a statement. Such features have been confirmed on Earth, Mars, Venus and Saturn's huge moon Titan, for example, and they may even exist on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was studied up close by Europe's Rosetta mission from 2014 through 2016. New analysis of images collected by the space probe of the dwarf planet's surface has confirmed the presence of dunes.

These are then transported by Pluto's moderate winds (which can reach between 30 and 40 kmh), with the border of the ice plain and mountain range providing the ideal location for such regular surface formations to appear.

Earth is not the only place in the solar system with dunes.

It's expected to zip past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule - orbiting one billion miles beyond Pluto - on January 1.

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