Scientists find dunes on Pluto, likely made of methane ice grains

Katie Ramirez
June 5, 2018

"What it does is lead you to thinking about what's there beyond the Solar System, because we can't see their surfaces at the moment but we will do and then we'll probably see familiar things - we'll see dunes and they'll remind us of the dunes of Pluto or the dunes on Earth but they'll have formed in a different way".

Further investigation by an global team of geographers, physicists and planetary scientists has now filled in the blanks.

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.

'These are not just balls of ice far out in space, ' he said, adding that frozen worlds on the fringes of our solar system, like the dwarf planet Pluto, might have been active early on.

"Given we have dunes on the scorching surface of Venus under a dense atmosphere, and out in the distant reaches of the solar system at minus 230 degrees Celsius (minus 382 Fahrenheit) under a thin atmosphere, yes, dunes do have a habit of cropping up in a lot of surprising places", University of Plymouth planetary scientist Matt Telfer said.

NASA released New Horizons images shortly after the flyby, including an iconic picture of a heart-shaped basin on Pluto. After a closer analysis, the researchers confirmed that the planet possesses methane ice dunes, which is basically an attribute observed on the Earth.

Modeling by the team shows that Pluto's moderate winds (which can reach between 19 and 25 miles per hour, or 30-40 kmh) can create these dunes once the grains are airborne.

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The likely source of the dune grains is methane ice blown from nearby mountains, although nitrogen ice can not be ruled out, as a source.

For some time, scientists have been intrigued by odd, regularly spaced ridges, that stuck out of Pluto's cold, dark plains like thumbprints pressed into ice.

"Despite being 30 times further away from the sun as the Earth, it turns out Pluto still has Earth-like characteristics", study co-author Jani Radebaugh of Brigham Young University said. "So it would feel lighter in your hand, but it would still be granular and would kind of flow off of your hand, and your feet would kind of crunch them as you're walking along".

If you take a look at this photo without knowing the source of it, you'll say it's an image of a beach with sand dunes.

The team has yet to determine the height of the dunes.

Nonetheless, he described the Telfer team's argument for uplifted methane granules as convincing. Pluto's mild winds then carried the particles to the area where the dunes on Pluto are now located.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons was the first spacecraft ever to visit Pluto, passing within 7,770 miles (12,500 kilometers). For New Horizons, that opening will come on New Year's Day 2019, when it cruises to an object in the Kuiper belt called 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule - meaning beyond the borders of the known world.

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