Science

Dunes made of tiny frozen methane grains discovered on Pluto

Dunes made of tiny frozen methane grains discovered on Pluto”

Scientists have discovered dunes on Pluto made of tiny frozen grains of methane. Streaks on the surface indicate the wind blows in a perpendicular direction to the dunes.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto's horizon. "What makes this discovery surprising", writes Alexander Hayes in a related Perspective, "is that the sediment can be mobilized despite Pluto's tenuous atmosphere, whose surface pressure (1 Pa) is 100,000 times lower than Earth's".

Pluto's surface is mostly nitrogen, which is solid at the average temperature of around -230°C. Pluto presents a bit of an age conundrum this way. He said other explanations, such as periodic increases in Pluto's atmospheric pressure, could also result in lofted dune particles. However despite being 30 times further away from the sun as the Earth, it turns out Pluto still has Earth-like characteristics.

"The probable source of the dune's dust is the methane ice carried by the winds from the mountains", the scientists explain in an article published Thursday in the journal Science. He told BBC News: "We can't see individual grains but what we are able to identify dunes, and characterise their basic physical parameters, and the density of the atmosphere that they've been formed under. We have been focusing on what's close to us, but there's a wealth of information in the distant reaches of the Solar System too".

The study's lead author, Matt Telfer of Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, noted there were dunes on the scorching surface of Venus under a dense atmosphere and in the distant reaches of the solar system at minus 230 degrees Celsius under a thin atmosphere.

Nearly three years have passed since New Horizons performed its historic flyby of Pluto, but we might just be getting started when it comes to the discoveries it will bring.

Still, finding dunes on Pluto was unexpected, given the dwarf planet's very thin air, experts said. Previously, scientists had spotted them on Mars, Titan, and even on a freaking comet. Nitrogen sublimation-where the solid becomes a gas-might be kicking these methane particles into the air, where the relatively light winds of Pluto can grab them and pile them up high between the border of the glacier and the mountains. It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around -230?C, we still get dunes forming.

"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.

"On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to maintain transport", said co-author Eric Parteli.

These are then transported by Pluto's moderate winds (which can reach between 30 and 40 kmh), with the border of the ice plain and mountain range providing the flawless location for such regular surface formations to appear. It's expected to zip past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule - orbiting 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto - on January 1.



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