Pluto Might Have a Liquid Water Ocean Beneath Its Surface

Wednesday, 22 June 2016 - 10:38AM
NASA
Solar System
Wednesday, 22 June 2016 - 10:38AM
Pluto Might Have a Liquid Water Ocean Beneath Its Surface
Pluto is a frozen wasteland 3.67 billion miles from the Sun, and has been assumed to be very, very dead. Of all the planets and other large objects in our solar system, it has never been considered a serious contender for life. But all that might be about to change, as new modeling has indicated that there might be a surviving subsurface ocean made of liquid water.

Before New Horizons' groundbreaking close approach, Pluto was thought to be completely inactive. But in addition to close-up pictures of the surface, New Horizons collected data that showed the dwarf planet is geologically active, complete with flowing ice on the surface. Now, a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters shows that there may actually be flowing water beneath a layer of ice on Pluto's surface.

Opening quote
"Our model shows that recent geological activity on Pluto can be driven just from phase changes in the ice-no tides or exotic materials or unusual processes are required," lead study author Noah Hammond said in a statement. "If Pluto's most recent tectonic episode is extensional, that means that Pluto may have an ocean at present. This lends support to the idea that oceans may be common among large Kuiper Belt objects, just as they are common among the satellites of the outer planets."
Closing quote

For the study, the researchers looked at the tectonic features of Pluto imaged by New Horizons, and modeled the phasing of the ice below the surface that would be consistent with the geological features observed. We know that Pluto once had a subsurface ocean, and the researchers claim that if it had frozen over completely, a substance called ice II would have formed. Ice II is a phase of ice 25% more dense than the ice on Earth, and would be expected to form in the high-pressure, low-temperature conditions on Pluto, if the subsurface ocean were no longer liquid.

Opening quote
"The formation of ice II would cause Pluto to experience volume contraction and compressional tectonic features to form on the surface," Hammond said. "Since the tectonic features on Pluto's surface are all extensional and there is no obvious compressional features, it suggests that ice II has not formed and that therefore, Pluto's subsurface ocean has likely survived to present day."
Closing quote

Does this mean that Pluto could harbor alien life? It's impossible to say at this juncture, but it's certainly evidence that we shouldn't be ruling it out, and that our space agencies should continue to explore unexpected locations in our own backyard for potential extraterrestrial life.

Opening quote
"We have been waiting a long time to see the surface of Pluto, and it did not disappoint," Barr said. "Many people thought that Pluto would be geologically 'dead,' that it would be covered in craters and have an ancient surface. Our work shows how even Pluto, at the edge of the Solar System, with very little energy, can have tectonics.

"We are grateful to the New Horizons team for working so hard to guide the craft to Pluto and return the beautiful images that motivated our study," he continued. "They have provided another piece in the puzzle of the comparative planetology of icy worlds."
Closing quote
Science
Space
NASA
Solar System

Load Comments