‘Cryovolcanoes’ erupting slushy ice water recently active on Pluto

Giant ice volcanoes were “relatively new” active on Pluto, altering its surface, scientists say.

Images taken of Pluto reveal a region of strange terrain previously unobserved in our solar system, according to a new study learn published in the journal Nature Communications.

The photos, taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during a 2015 flyby, suggest the bizarre, lumpy surfaces were caused by the dwarf planet’s icy volcanoes, or “cryovolcanoes.”

“Here we analyze the geomorphology and composition of features and conclude that the region has re-emerged through cryovolcanic processes of a type and magnitude hitherto unique to Pluto,” the study reads.

Cyrovolan material on Pluto consists of a “thicker, slushy ice-water mix, or possibly even a solid flow like glaciers,” according to study author and planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, Kelsi Singer.

It’s unclear exactly when Pluto’s cryovolcanoes last erupted, but the study’s authors suggest that “a large body of material erupted from multiple sources and likely in more than one episode over time.”

Singer also noted that the research found no evidence of an impact crater in the area, meaning it may still be forming today.

Cryovolcanic ejections on Pluto suggest the planet may have retained its internal heat for longer than scientists previously thought.

“[The findings] suggest that a small body like Pluto, which should have lost much of its internal heat long ago, was able to store enough energy to support widespread geological activity quite late in its history,” Lynnae Quick, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight center specializing in ice volcanoes, told AFP.

While there are several cryovolcanoes in our solar system — most notably on Ceres and Saturn’s moon Titan — Pluto “looks so unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Singer said.

“The features on Pluto are the only huge field of very large ice volcanoes and they have a unique texture of hilly terrain.”

Pluto’s surface-altering volcanoes include its largest, Wright Mons, which is about the same size as Hawaii’s Mauna Loa (or about 13,679 feet tall).

Cryovolcanic activity has shaped strange terrain on Pluto.
Cryovolcanic activity has shaped strange terrain on Pluto.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University A

Singer said it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the ice volcanoes formed, “but we think they could be as little as a few hundred million years old or even younger.”

Experts have called the results extremely significant and believe they will advance our understanding of Pluto, which the study describes as one of the most unique places in our solar system visited.

“These results will prompt us to reevaluate the possibilities for the maintenance of liquid water on small, icy worlds far from the sun,” Quick said.

“I love the idea that we still have so much to learn about the solar system,” Singer reiterated.

“Every time we go to a new place, we find new things we didn’t anticipate — like huge, recently formed ice volcanoes on Pluto.”

This story originally appeared on the sun and is reproduced here with permission. ‘Cryovolcanoes’ erupting slushy ice water recently active on Pluto


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