Friday, 19 October, 2018

Methane dunes at Pluto's heart | Research

Pluto Has Dunes But They're Not Made of Sand Methane dunes at Pluto's heart | Research
Sandra Phillips | 05 June, 2018, 13:29

And scientists sifting through data gathered by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft have now found the dwarf planet is home to surface dunes, made of methane.

However, there are other scientists who cast doubt on the team's findings.

The core of the comet idea is that the amount of nitrogen inside the huge glacier that sprawls across Pluto is consistent with the amount that would be expected if it had been formed by the collision and agglomeration of a billion bodies like 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the famous duck-shaped comet that was orbited by Rosetta and landed on by Philae. It resides in the far corner of the solar system at an average of about 4 billion miles from the sun. It could have been made from lumps of ice with a chemical composition closer to that of our Sun.

The study from lead author Matt Telfer focuses on photos taken of the Sputnik Planitia region of Pluto.

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

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

NASA released New Horizons images shortly after the flyby, including an iconic picture of a heart-shaped basin on Pluto.

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The researchers suggest that Pluto's winds could actually be strong enough to transport the grains and create the dunes but only if the grains are already airborne. It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around -230 degrees Celsius, we still get dunes forming.

Pluto, smaller than Earth's moon with a diameter of about 1,400 miles (2,380 km), orbits roughly 3.6 billion miles (5.8 billion km) away from the sun, nearly 40 times farther than Earth's orbit, with a surface marked by plains, mountains, craters and valleys. Pluto's dunes were shaped by moderate winds reaching around 22 miles per hour (35 kph) apparently blowing fine-grained frozen methane bits from mountaintops.

Now, though, thanks to the spectacular images returned by the New Horizons spacecraft that flew past Pluto in 2015, we know that, far from being a dreary and undistinguished body, Pluto is a lively and active object that displays a fantastic variety of landscapes.

For some time, scientists have been intrigued by unusual, regularly spaced ridges, that stuck out of Pluto's cold, dark plains like thumbprints pressed into ice.

While the mysterious dunes on Pluto may look like sand dunes, they are really formed out of tiny particles of methane.

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

Another discovery: the dunes are probably young, geologically. Telfer guesses they are at least tens of metres tall. The mounds stretch for more than 12 miles and occupy an area equivalent to twice that of Utah Lake. The dunes were spread across 75 km and spread like belt below the mountain range and scientists notified the stable condition that indicates its likely formation within 500,000 years time. 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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