Icy Volcanoes on Pluto Could Erupt


Icy volcanoes may lie on the southern rim of Pluto’s frozen heart.

Images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft have identified two peaks that tower nearly 4 miles (6 kilometers) high over the surface of the dwarf planet, and scientists say the peaks’ physical features suggest they might be volcanoes.

“These are two really extraordinary features,” Oliver White, a New Horizons postdoctoral researcher with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said today (Nov. 9) during a news conference here at the 47th annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). “Nothing like this has ever been seen in the solar system,” he said.

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A tiny, icy world at the edge of the solar system, Pluto remained largely invisible to scientists until July 2015, when the New Horizons space probe flew past it, giving humanity its first good look at the dwarf planet’s surface. Before the New Horizons flyby, most scientists thought Pluto would prove to be too small to maintain the internal heat needed to power geological processes such as glacier flows and volcanism, according to scientists at the news conference. But the fast-moving spacecraft revealed a far younger surface than scientists had expected, suggesting that geological processes are taking place on Pluto, and that something must be keeping things warm beneath the surface.

Two enormous mountains, spanning hundreds of miles across, sit at the southern edge of the heart-shaped region on the surface of Pluto. The mountains have been informally named Wright Mons and Picard Mons, and at their crests, each peak hosts a central crater, reminiscent of peaks called “shield volcanoes” on Earth.

“Whatever they are, they’re definitely weird” — ‘volcanoes’ is the least weird hypothesis at the moment,” White said at the news conference.

Although the features bear a strong similarity to volcanoes, New Horizons researcher Jeff Moore, of NASA Ames Research Field, said in an earlier session that they were not yet ready to conclusively pronounce that there is evidence for cryovolcanism on Pluto.

“These look suspicious, and we’re looking very closely,” Moore said.

Scientists don’t yet know what could be generating the heat inside Pluto necessary to create a volcano on the surface. One possibility, also presented at the conference, is that an ammonia-water slurry mantle lies beneath the surface, according to a statement from AAS. The research, performed by graduate student Alex Trowbridge and professor Jay Melosh, of Purdue University in Indiana, suggests that, as cooler material sinks through the subsurface layers, hot material might rise, leading to geological activity that could include cryovolcanism.

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SOURCE: Space.com, Nola Taylor Redd