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Pluto's dunes made of frozen methane

02 June 2018

New analysis of images collected by the space probe of the dwarf planet's surface has confirmed the presence of dunes.

An global team of researchers reviewed photos of the Tombaugh Regio - dubbed "the heart" - snapped by the New Horizon space probe during its 2015 fly-by of the dwarf planet, and discovered 357 regularly spaced ridges along a bordering mountain range.

"This is one of the windiest spots on Pluto", Telfer said, "and the winds are in exactly the right direction". The dwarf planet hangs out at the far reaches of the Solar System and it's an incredibly chilly place to be. It could have been made from lumps of ice with a chemical composition closer to that of our Sun. An worldwide research team on Thursday conveyed the fact that the Pluto is covered with surprising dunes of methane ice.

The research is yet another moment to reflect on just how surprisingly diverse Pluto has been revealed to be.

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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. What they got was an icy world with a giant heart-shaped plain and water-ice mountains, and hints of geological activity deep below the surface. In Pluto's case, the sun heats the icy surface enough that gas can be released into the atmosphere.

The paper's lead author is Dr Matt Telfer, a physical geographer at the University of Plymouth.

"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".

Eric Parteli, lecturer in Computational Geosciences at the University of Cologne, said, "The considerably lower gravity of Pluto, and the extremely low atmospheric pressure, means the winds needed to maintain sediment transport can be a hundred times lower [than on Earth]". Scientists know this because of the shape of the piles of sand whose dark streaks allowed them to retrace the direction from which the wind blew. We are used to seeing dunes on different bodies - Earth, Mars, Titan (Saturn's largest moon), and now Pluto.

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"Most notably, it remains to be shown how high the dunes are, when they are most active, whether they change" and whether particles can be swept into dunes without rising into the air.

"On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to release sand particles into the air, but winds that are 20% weaker are then sufficient to maintain transport". "It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around 385 degrees below zero, we still get dunes forming".

Understanding how dunes form on Pluto will help scientists study similar features found elsewhere in the solar system, according to the study.

The dunes have reportedly formed in the last 500,000 years. If this is true, the dunes have to be more recent than the action of this convection otherwise they'd be churned apart by it.

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It's now heading towards an object in the Kuiper Belt nicknamed Ultima Thule, about 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto, on January 1.

Pluto's dunes made of frozen methane