Pluto has 'ice dunes' and 'Earth-like characteristics'

Scientists surprised to find dunes on Pluto that are made of tiny grains of methane

Scientists surprised to find dunes on Pluto that are made of tiny grains of methane

The study, published in the journal Science, reveals the findings of an global team of scientists who analyzed images of Pluto snapped in July 2015.

The team has yet to determine the height of the dunes; Mr Telfer guesses they're at least tens of metres tall.

So far, scientists have found dunes on Mars, Venus, Titan (Saturn's moon) and on a comet. however, Pluto's dunes are the only ones that are made from methane. Pluto has many such similarities with Earth in its landscape, dunes and more, all though it is far away from the Sun.

He noted there are dunes on the scorching surface of Venus under a dense atmosphere and out in the distant reaches of the solar system at minus 230C under a thin atmosphere.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons was the first spacecraft ever to visit Pluto, passing within 12,500 kilometres. They reported that a nitrogen ice sheet over the top of Sputnik Planitia was converted into gas, elevating the methane particles into the atmosphere.

Combining an analysis of wind streak and dune-like features with spectral and numerical modeling, the scientists determined what might be the underlying architect of dunes on Pluto. The wind on Pluto has enough force to slowly organize loose particulates into dunes like those seen at the edge of Sputnik Planitia.

Scientists were impressed to find dunes on Pluto because it has a thin atmosphere.

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"Sublimation pits" are spots where sunlight has caused relatively large amounts of icy material to sublime, or transition directly from the solid phase to gas.

Pluto's surface is mostly nitrogen, which is solid at the average temperature of around -230°C. Alternatively, the methane may come directly from the bottom of the nearby mountain range, getting swept up in the winds that flow down the mountainous slopes at roughly 22 miles per hour (35 kilometers per hour).

These sandy methane particles are then transported by the winds to the plains and mountain range, where dunes eventually form.

"On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to release sand particles into the air, but winds that are 20 percent weaker are then sufficient to maintain transport", says Dr Eric Parteli, Lecturer in Computational Geosciences at the University of Cologne, and study co-author.

"What makes this discovery surprising is that the sediment can be mobilized despite Pluto's tenuous atmosphere, with a surface pressure (1 Pa) that is a factor of 100,000 times lower than that on Earth", Alexander Hayes, an assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University who was not involved in the new study, wrote in an accompanying "Perspectives" piece in the same issue of Science.

In their study, the researchers explain how they studied pictures of a plain known as Sputnik Planitia, parts of which are covered with what look like fields of dunes. The discovery suggests that the planet's surface is more geologically diverse and dynamic than scientists previously expected. The surface itself is only about 500,000 years old, although the dwarf planet itself is about 4.5 billion years old. This helps date when the dunes formed, as well.

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