Published: Sat, June 02, 2018
Research | By Raquel Erickson

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

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

Interestingly, it was found to actually be helpful to the creation of these dunes when planets have lower gravity and atmospheric pressure, as the University of Cologne's Dr. Eric Parteli explained.

"When we first saw the images of New Horizons, we immediately thought they were dunes, which was very surprising because we knew there was not really any atmosphere", says Jani Radebaugh, co-discoverer and geology professor at Brigham Young University in the United States. It is composed of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water and methane, and it's diverse in landforms, including plains, trenches and mountain ranges. The dwarf planet hangs out at the far reaches of the Solar System and it's an incredibly chilly place to be.

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.

Scientists came to the conclusion that the slopes of the mountains on Pluto snow consisting of methane and possibly nitrogen, which under certain conditions is transferred by the winds in the valley.

The planet Pluto is pictured in a handout image made up of four images from New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) taken in July 2015 combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced color global view.

Astonishing methane dunes are present on the Pluto's surface, and we were unaware about it.

Following spatial analysis of the dunes and nearby wind streaks on the planet's surface, scientists believed that sublimation (which converts solid nitrogen directly into a gas) resulted in sand-sized grains of methane being released into the environment.


Pluto, smaller than Earth's moon with a diameter of about 1,400 miles (2,380 km), orbits roughly 3.6 billion miles (5.8 billion km) away from the sun, nearly 40 times farther than Earth's orbit, with a surface marked by plains, mountains, craters and valleys. Telfer guesses they are at least tens of metres tall. We are used to seeing dunes on different bodies - Earth, Mars, Titan (Saturn's largest moon), and now Pluto.

One of the most interesting aspects of the research is the implications it has for the study of other planetary surfaces.

These are then transported by Pluto's moderate winds (which can reach between 30 and 40 kilometers per hour). It would just kind of feel a lot like you're on another sand dune on the Earth'.

Scientists strongly believe that the undisturbed dunes were likely formed within the last five lakh years.

On Pluto, solar radiation also causes temperature gradients in the granular ice layer, which contributes to the ability of dunes to form.

"We knew that every solar system body with an atmosphere and a solid rocky surface has dunes on it, but we didn't know what we'd find on Pluto", said Matt Telfer, lead author of a new study that reveals the origins of Pluto's mysterious dunes, in a press release.

To be able to form, dunes need an atmosphere dense enough to make wind transport possible, a supply of dry particles, and a mechanism that lifts particles off the ground. It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around -230?C, we still get dunes forming.

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