Scientists reveal the secrets behind Pluto’s dunes

Pluto's icy heart

Pluto is covered with surprising dunes made of methane ice, which have formed relatively recently despite the frigid dwarf planet's very thin atmosphere, worldwide researchers said on Thursday.

Further investigation by an global team of geographers, physicists and planetary scientists has now filled in the blanks. "No one knew what to expect from its surface and most scientists shied away from detailed speculation, except to say that the one thing we should expect is to be surprised". Pluto is the most remote from the Sun body in our planetary system, but is rather a "Outpost" on the way to an unexplored region of the Kuiper belt. It could have been made from lumps of ice with a chemical composition closer to that of our Sun.

'Pretty much nowhere else we know of is cold enough.' said Matt Telfer of Plymouth University in England, who published a report in the journal Science detailing the findings.

Pluto's atmosphere has a surface pressure 100,000 times lower than Earth's, which researchers suspected might be too little to allow tiny grains of solid methane to mobilise and become airborne.

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When NASA's New Horizons spacecraft zipped by Pluto at 31,000 miles (50,000 kilometers) per hour in July 2015, it captured a plethora of breathtaking photos of the distant dwarf planet's surface. But the dunes, he said, show that Pluto "is actually so similar".

The dunes were found on the boundary of the Sputnik Planitia ice plain. They now plan to carry on investigating the dunes through computer simulations, which will in turn further enlighten them about how Pluto's winds shaped its geography.

The dunes were seen as hundreds of ridges in New Horizons' images, appearing parallel to the mountain range in the western portion of the plain, but changing orientation and becoming spread out as they moved eastward.

Dr Eric Parteli, Lecturer in Computational Geosciences at the University of Cologne, said: "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".

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'So it would feel lighter in your hand, but it would still be granular and would kind of flow off of your hand, and your feet would kind of crunch them as you're walking along. Pluto's mild winds then carried the particles to the area where the dunes on Pluto are now located.

"Much work is left to do to understand dunes on Pluto", Cornell University's Alexander Hayes wrote in a companion article. This section of the plateau is about 47 miles (75 kilometers) wide and meets up with the Al-Idrisi Montes mountain range.

The team has yet to determine the height of the dunes.

Personally, I find it remarkable every time we get to see familiar Earthly features on alien worlds, be them tall mountains, vast deserts, or undulating canals. For New Horizons, that opening will come on New Year's Day 2019, when it cruises to an object in the Kuiper belt called 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule - meaning beyond the borders of the known world. Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute.

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