Pluto is covered with icy methane dunes

In the images, scientists have discovered evidence of what appears to be sandy dunes on the surface.

An global team of planetary scientists, physicists and geographers looked at detailed photos of Pluto's surface, captured by New Horizons, that offered a bird's eye view of the dwarf planet's active surface.

Methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, all gaseous on Earth, are rendered solid with Pluto's temperatures near absolute zero. It could have been made from lumps of ice with a chemical composition closer to that of our Sun.

A study published today in the journal Science confirms that the icy dwarf planet has dunes of its own.

The exciting part of the methane dunes existence is that they are formed instead of the presence of dwarf Pluto's fragile atmospheric layer.

This Pluto mosaic was made from New Horizons LORRI images taken on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 49,700 miles (80,000 km). 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.

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"We knew that everything in the solar system with an atmosphere and a solid surface had dunes, but we did not know what we would find on Pluto", says lead author Matt Telfer, a professor at the University of Plymouth. Telfer and his colleagues spotted pits along the edge of the plain, where they suspect nitrogen ice sublimated.

The researchers were astonished to encounter dunes on Pluto, considering that Pluto presents a very weak and light atmosphere.

"But it turns out that Pluto, while being 30 times farther away from the sun than Earth, has similar characteristics to those of the Earth". "It is far more interesting than any of us dreamed, and tells us that these very distant bodies are well worth visiting", Brigham Young University planetary scientist Jani Radebaugh said.

And now, a new study reveals another alien parallel: Pluto has an extensive dune system, but the grains that make up the wind-blown mounds are certainly not sand.

"They just really looked like dunes", she said. "Put together, we have found that these combined processes can form dunes under normal, everyday wind conditions on Pluto", said Dr Eric Parteli, Lecturer in Computational Geosciences at the University of Cologne. Before this discovery, dunes had only been found on Earth, Mars, Venus, Saturn's moon Titan, and comet 67P.

According to the scientists, the undisturbed morphology of the dunes and their relationship with the underlying glacial ice suggested the features were likely to have been formed within the last 500,000 years, and possibly much more recently. "It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around minus 230 degrees Celsius we still get dunes forming". "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. It's expected to zip past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule - orbiting 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto - on January 1.

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