Science

Scientists have examined images of Pluto and made a startling discovery

Scientists have examined images of Pluto and made a startling discovery”

And Prof Monica Grady of the Open University told me that the discovery raises fascinating questions about whether there are dunes on worlds in other star systems too.

"When we first saw the New Horizons images, we thought instantly that these were dunes but it was really surprising because we know there is not much of an atmosphere", said co-author Jani Radebaugh, associate professor in the department of geological sciences at Brigham Young University.

Now, though, thanks to the spectacular images returned by the New Horizons spacecraft that flew past Pluto in 2015, we know that, far from being a dreary and undistinguished body, Pluto is a lively and active object that displays a fantastic variety of landscapes.

They are lying close to a range of mountains of water ice 5km high.

Dune systems appear to be common throughout the solar system.

The dunes are something else that Pluto would have in common with comet 67/P, which stunned scientists with its combination of rippled dusty flanks and sharp-edged cliffs. They believe that the methane ice could've been thrown into the atmosphere by the melting of surrounding nitrogen ice, or they could've been blown down from the mountains near where they were found. They noticed a complex of ridges within Sputnik Planitia, a 620-mile-wide (1,000 kilometers) nitrogen-ice plain that forms the left lobe of Pluto's famous "heart".

Until the New Horizons spacecraft flew past it in 2015, humanity had very little knowledge about this body, and many were expecting a rather tiresome, icy asteroid.

Dunes have been detected elsewhere in the solar system including planets Mars and Venus, Saturn's moon Titan and Neptune's moon Triton, University of Cologne physicist and geoscientist Eric Parteli said.

Scientists have discovered dunes on Pluto which look a lot like the mounds of sand found near beaches here in the UK.

Scientists say it's most likely the dune grains are methane ice from nearby mountains, blown around by winds that are estimated at 12 to 18 miles per hour. "However, despite being 30 times farther away from the Sun as the Earth, it turns out Pluto still has Earth-like characteristics".

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. In comparison with the pressure of Earth's atmosphere, the Pluto's atmosphere has got a lower surface pressure. The temperature gradients in the granular ice layer, caused by solar radiation, also play an important role in the onset of the saltation process. And the dunes are likely young as well; the study team believes they formed within the past 500,000 years or so. There was some doubt about whether Pluto's extremely thin atmosphere, mainly nitrogen with minor amounts of methane and carbon monoxide, could muster the wind needed to form such features. This showed researchers that the dunes were most likely the result of tiny grains of methane, as Phys.org reports.

"It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around -230 Celsius (-382 Fahrenheit), we still get dunes forming".



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