While the mysterious dunes on Pluto may look like sand dunes, they are really formed out of tiny particles of methane.
A group of planetary scientists, geographers, and physicists have just published a very special study that proves Pluto has nearly 50 miles of dunes that are made out of methane. The new research was conducted by carefully observing images of the planet that were taken in 2015 by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.
After scientists observed dunes on Pluto that were lurking close to mountains and the Sputnik Planitia ice plain, they conducted numerical and spectral modeling, as well as spatial analysis on the area. This showed researchers that the dunes were most likely the result of tiny grains of methane, as Phys.org reports.
As winds on the dwarf planet are able to reach levels approaching 25 mph, scientists concurred that a location like this, complete with a mountain range and the Sputnik Planitia ice plain, would be absolutely ideal for collecting enough methane to form such dunes on Pluto.
The new study’s lead author, Dr. Matt Telfer, explained that despite the understanding that planets with an atmosphere may have dunes on them, researchers were nevertheless surprised to find dunes on Pluto.
“We knew that every solar system body with an atmosphere and a solid rocky surface has dunes on it, but we didn’t know what we’d find on Pluto. It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around -230C, we still get dunes forming.”
While clearly observing the dunes on Pluto, scientists still had to work hard to determine just how these could have ever ended up on the dwarf planet, according to Dr. Telfer.
“The New Horizons data has given us a new level of detail, but we had to work hard to explain how it was possible to get the supply of sediment, a non-cohesive surface and wind you need for dunes. It is another piece of the jigsaw in making sense of this diverse and remote body, and gives us a more fundamental understanding of the geological processes which are influencing it.”
Interestingly, it was found to actually be helpful to the creation of these dunes when planets have lower gravity and atmospheric pressure, as the University of Cologne’s Dr. Eric Parteli explained.
“The considerably lower gravity of Pluto, and the extremely low atmospheric pressure, means the winds needed to maintain sediment transport can be a hundred times lower. The temperature gradients in the granular ice layer, caused by solar radiation, also play an important role in the onset of the saltation process. Put together, we have found that these combined processes can form dunes under normal, everyday wind conditions on Pluto.”
Scientists will now be focusing their energy on computer simulations designed to help them learn more and better understand the formation of these mysterious dunes on Pluto.
The new study on the discovery of the methane dunes on Pluto can be read in the journal, Science.
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