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Pluto's 'Ice Dunes' Are Proof It Has 'Earth-like Characteristics'

03 June 2018

Other cosmic bodies that are known to have dunes - besides Earth - include Mars and Venus, as well as Saturn's moon Titan and the comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

This is only possible with sublimation resulting in sand-like particles that are most likely methane, but scientists say it could also be nitrogen ice.

Writing in Science, an worldwide team of geographers, physicists and planetary scientists have analysed detailed images of the dwarf planet's surface, captured in July 2015 by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Sastrugi - parallel wave-like ridges caused by winds on a hard snow surface; barchan - crescent mounds that tend to be wider than they are long; and seif - linear dunes with two slip faces, are just three of the very different types of dune that are found on Earth.

Dunes made out of solid methane particles have been discovered on Pluto. This lower surface pressure of the Pluto's atmosphere enables the solid methane grains to mobilize in the atmosphere and become airborne.

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Scientists say they have found evidence of dunes of frozen methane on Pluto. "If an extremely tenuous atmosphere like that of Pluto can support the generation of bedforms from wind-driven sediment", poses Hayes in his Perspective, "what kind of aeolian activity might we see on places like Io or Triton?" The winds that do blow across Pluto, at speeds of 29 to 40 km/h (18 to 25 mph), then carry those particles into the space where the Sputnik Planitia ends and the adjacent mountain range begins.

"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".

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. Within these highly detailed images, researchers noticed what looked to be an extensive system of odd dunes stretching 75 miles along the boundary of Pluto's massive Al-Idrisi Montes mountain range and Sputnik Planitia - a nitrogen-ice plain that forms the left lobe of the planet's famous "heart". In comparison with the pressure of Earth's atmosphere, the Pluto's atmosphere has got a lower surface pressure.

"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", Eric Parteli, study co-author and lecturer in computational geosciences at the University of Cologne, said in a statement.

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These dunes are largely undisturbed on Pluto's icy crust, which suggests that they were formed within the past 500,000 years - or even more recently. Previously, scientists had thought Pluto's winds may not be strong enough to sculpt such epic piles of sand.

In order to figure out how exactly these dunes formed, it makes sense to hunt for analogs elsewhere as well.

"That's exciting not just because it shows (again) the dynamism of these small, cold, dark distant worlds, but also for its inferences for very early solar system bodies", Telfer told Space.com via email.

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Pluto's 'Ice Dunes' Are Proof It Has 'Earth-like Characteristics'