Why Pluto's Volcanoes May Hint at Life Beneath Its Surface

Why Pluto’s Volcanoes May Hint at Life Beneath Its Surface

New Horizons spacecraft flies over Pluto

The mission New Horizons NASA continues to amaze scientists. When the probe flew by the now dwarf planet in 2015, it took never-before-seen photos of the most important distant object in our solar system.

The data and information provided by the ship are still being analyzed by experts who develop incredible theories about the formations that exist there and that the heat under the surface of the dwarf planet could even allusion to the potential of life. An area of ​​Pluto that researchers say formed from the eruption of ice volcanoes is unique on this cold, distant world. Launched in 2006, the mission captured detailed photos of the surface of Pluto, a dwarf planet and the largest object in the Kuiper Belt.

Now a new Item scientific journal published Nature Communication examines images of an area containing two main mounds that experts have proposed as ice volcanoes. In the study, the researchers conclude that the surface around these mounds was likely formed by the fairly recent activity of ice volcanoes, or cryovolcanoes.

The discovery raises the possibility that these volcanoes are still active and that liquid water, or something like that, has flowed or flowed recently below Pluto’s surface. The recent activity also means there will likely be more heat inside Pluto than scientists previously thought. Given other recent research, they say their work may even increase the possibility that life exists below the surface of Pluto.

Volcanic formation captured during a New Horizons flyby (NASA)

The researchers analyzed photographs of an area dominated by two large mounds, called Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, that scientists believe to be cryovolcanoes. Wright Mons is a ridge 4-5 km high and about 150 km wide, while Piccard Mons is about 7 km high and 250 km wide.

Suspected ice volcanoes also have extremely deep depressions at their summits: Wright Mons it’s as deep as the height of the mountain. Many parts of the area also have an unusual bumpy or bumpy appearance, consisting of wavy and rounded mounds. The researchers believe that smaller mounds, formed by ice volcanoes, could have accumulated over time to form these two main mounds.

There were no other areas on Pluto that looked like this region. The appearance of these features is very different from that of any volcano in the solar system, whether icy examples or rocky volcanoes. They formed like mountains, but there’s no caldera at the top and they have big bulges everywhere,” said Kelsi Singer, planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado and lead author of the study. . Although Pluto has a rocky core, scientists have long believed that the planet lacks interior heat, which is necessary to stimulate volcanism. To create the region studied by Singer and his team, there would have been several eruption sites.

Pluto was unknown as a distant world, until the NASA mission arrived to photograph and record it (REUTERS/NASA/JHUAPL)

The research team also noted that the area has no impact craters, which can be seen on Pluto’s surface, suggesting that ice volcanoes were active relatively recently and that Pluto’s interior has more residual heat than expected. “This means Pluto has more internal heat than we thought, which means we don’t fully understand how planetary bodies work,” Singer said. Based on the lack of craters, the area is probably no more than one or two billion years old, with some areas probably less than 200 million years.

In a way, cryovolcanoes are analogous to volcanoes on Earth in that much of Pluto’s surface is ice, and temperatures on Pluto are well below the freezing point of water. This means that liquid water, or something like it that is at least partially fluid or mobile, would be like magma on Earth, rising to the surface after an eruption and freezing, or hardening, into a solid.

It probably won’t come out completely liquid; it’s probably more like something slushy where you have liquid and ice, or it might even look more like a flowing solid, which might look more like ketchup or playdough. It could even be more solid ice that can still sink. We all know that ice can sink because we have sinking glaciers on Earth.”

Cryovolcanic activity on Pluto is likely due to radiogenic heat created by the decay of radioactive elements inside the dwarf planet (NASA)

Although scientists don’t fully understand how cryovolcanic activity on Pluto might work, it’s likely due to radiogenic heat created by the decay of radioactive elements inside the dwarf planet.. A similar phenomenon is also one of the sources of heat inside the Earth, although Pluto does not have tectonic plates, the complex system of continental crustal movement that underlies the Earth’s geological activity. Scientists call geologic activity like Pluto’s “general tectonics,” which can still create fault-like features in rocks but has no plate tectonics.

Pluto’s cryovolcanoes bear some similarities to Earth’s shield volcanoes, which are low-profile volcanoes that form from the constant accumulation of lava flows into rounded structures.. But shield volcanoes usually form from very liquid lava, unlike what scientists think happened on Pluto.

Some volcanoes on Earth and other planets also have a depression in the middle called a caldera, formed when a newly erupting volcano collapses into the void left by all the material it has spewed out. But the Wright Mons Depression is so deep that the volcano would have had to lose about half its volume to have a shape similar to Mauna Loa, a shield volcano in Hawaii that is one of Earth’s largest volcanoes. and is relatively small in size, like a caldera, although the two structures are similar in volume, Singer said.

The New Horizons mission was launched in 2006 by NASA (HUBBLESITE)

There are still many researchers who don’t know about these features, how they formed, and how cryovolcanism works on Pluto. IThe idea that liquid water might exist beneath Pluto’s surface takes the chances of life on Pluto from virtually non-existent to slightly more plausible.given another research suggesting that Pluto was hot when it first formed and might still have a liquid ocean under under its frozen surface.

“I think it’s a bit more promising, and there could be heat and liquid water, potentially liquid, closer to the surface. But there are still big challenges for the poor microbes that want to live on Pluto,” the expert said.

They would always need a continuous source of nutrients, and if the volcanism is episodic and therefore the availability of heat and water is variable, it is sometimes also difficult for the organisms.”. Investigating Pluto’s intriguing subsoil would require sending an orbiter to the distant world. “If we were to send out a future mission, we could use ice-penetrating radar to look directly at Pluto and maybe even see what the volcanic pipes look like,” Singer hoped.

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