Pluto May Have Ice Volcanoes on Its Surface

Tuesday, 10 November 2015 - 11:41AM
Space
Astronomy
Solar System
Tuesday, 10 November 2015 - 11:41AM
Pluto May Have Ice Volcanoes on Its Surface
It's been four months since New Horizons's historic flyby past the enigmatic Pluto, and NASA is finally ready to release their discoveries about the former ninth planet of our solar system. At this week's 47th Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences, NASA will unveil more than 50 discoveries about the icy dwarf planet, each more exciting than the next.

Opening quote
"It's hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the solar system," mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern said in a statement. "Moreover, I'd wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible."
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Chief among these discoveries are possible volcanoes on Pluto's surface. Yesterday, NASA scientists revealed that 3-D topographical maps from the New Horizons data revealed that some of the relatively young, icy mountains in the southern hemisphere, particularly Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, are actually shaped like volcanoes.

Pluto May Have Ice Volcanoes on Its Surface

Opening quote
"These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing--a volcano," said New Horizons postdoctoral researcher Oliver White. "If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have traveled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don't yet know."
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While these mountains are similar in appearance to volcanoes that spew lava, NASA believes these geographical features are cryovolcanoes, or volcanoes that erupt with ice and other frozen substances, such as nitrogen, ammonia, and methane, rather than hot lava. These haven't been observed anywhere else in the deep solar system, so if this hypothesis is confirmed, it would be a groundbreaking discovery that could tell us more about Pluto's evolution and about the nature of volcanoes in general.

Opening quote
"The New Horizons mission has taken what we thought we knew about Pluto and turned it upside down," said Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary science. "It's why we explore -- to satisfy our innate curiosity and answer deeper questions about how we got here and what lies beyond the next horizon."
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