As NASA’s New Horizons heads deeper into the Kuiper Belt, having completed its course corrections for its next target, the space probe is still returning awe inspiring data from Pluto and her moons. The space agency announced on Monday that New Horizons has spotted what may well be ice volcanoes on the former ninth planet from the sun. Some areas of Pluto have craters and some do not. Those craters that exist tend to be large. Meanwhile, some of Pluto’s moons are twirling about like tops.
The announcement was made at the 47th Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in National Harbor, Maryland. The ice volcanos, are as scientists call them, cryovolcanoes, are just the latest feature that has made Pluto one of the strangest and most fascinating worlds in the solar system.
“The two cryovolcano candidates are large features measuring tens of miles or kilometers across and several miles or kilometers high.
“’These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing — a volcano’ said Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. ‘If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have traveled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don’t yet know.’
“While their appearance is similar to volcanoes on Earth that spew molten rock, ice volcanoes on Pluto are expected to emit a somewhat melted slurry of substances such as water ice, nitrogen, ammonia, or methane. If Pluto proves to have volcanoes, it will provide an important new clue to its geologic and atmospheric evolution.”
Scientists also confirmed that while there are some parts of Pluto that have experienced asteroid bombardment from the beginning of the solar system, some areas, such as Sputnik Planum, are crater-free and therefore relatively young in origin. Moreover, something about the size of the craters has caused scientists to make conclusions about the origin of the solar system and the nature of the Kuiper Belt.
“Crater counts are giving the New Horizons team insight into the structure of the Kuiper Belt itself. The dearth of smaller craters across Pluto and its large moon Charon indicate the Kuiper Belt, which is an unexplored outer region of our solar system, likely had fewer smaller objects than some models had predicted.
“This leads New Horizons scientists to doubt a longstanding model that all Kuiper Belt objects formed by accumulating much smaller objects –less than a mile wide. The absence of small craters on Pluto and Charon support other models theorizing that Kuiper Belt objects tens of miles across may have formed directly, at their current — or close to current — size.
“In fact, the evidence that many Kuiper Belt objects could have been ‘born large’ has scientists excited that New Horizons’ next potential target — the 30-mile-wide (40-50 kilometer wide) KBO named 2014 MU69 — which may offer the first detailed look at just such a pristine, ancient building block of the solar system.”
How this could have happened is a matter of some debate.
Finally, some of Pluto’s smaller moons are behaving, unlike any other moon in the solar system.
“The New Horizons mission also is shedding new light on Pluto’s fascinating system of moons, and their unusual properties. For example, nearly every other moon in the solar system — including Earth’s moon — is in synchronous rotation, keeping one face toward the planet. This is not the case for Pluto’s small moons.
“Pluto’s small lunar satellites are spinning much faster, with Hydra — its most distant moon — rotating an unprecedented 89 times during a single lap around the planet. Scientists believe these spin rates may be variable because Charon exerts a strong torque that prevents each small moon from settling down into synchronous rotation.”
One thing is for certain. From the tiny, distant disrespected ninth planet that was downgraded to a “dwarf planet,” Pluto, though the lenses of the New Horizon, has become the belle of ball, showing characteristics that were not suspected even a year ago.