Science with Jonathan Webb: Dunes on Pluto, the first lizards, face recognition

05 June, 2018, 13:29 | Author: Sherry Houston
  • Grainy, icy 'dunes' found on Pluto

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.

BYU Professor Jani Radebaugh and a team of worldwide scientists discovered a series of "sand dunes" made of methane ice on Pluto.

The researchers at SwRI in Texas aren't ruling out other theories for the formation of Pluto, which sits far out at the edge of the solar system in the Kuiper Belt. It's possible the dunes were formed even more recently.

"But it turns out that Pluto, while being 30 times farther away from the sun than Earth, has similar characteristics to those of the Earth". "Put together, we have found that these combined processes can form dunes under normal, everyday wind conditions on Pluto". They reported that a nitrogen ice sheet over the top of Sputnik Planitia was converted into gas, elevating the methane particles into the atmosphere. The scientists noticed that the ridges ran parallel with a major mountain range, that seemed to shift and spread out.

Dr Telfer said the analysis provided a new insight to Pluto and also changed our view of it. This requires the grains to be entrained in the wind - if grains are compressed and consolidated, as would be the case in a deeply frozen or solid rocky surface, then they can not readily be transported.

"I can drive down to the sand dunes at Little Sahara and be driving around on something that's nearly exactly the same as the surface of Pluto", Radebaugh said.

Scientists were impressed to find dunes on Pluto because it has a thin atmosphere. "That tells us that the atmosphere works with the surface on Pluto and helps shape it". The Science journal reports, "The likely source of the dune grains is methane ice blown from nearby mountains". Methane ice breaks into tiny particles.

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Though the winds may be relatively slow, the nature of the terrain has contributed to the formation of the dunes, the researchers argue.

"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", Eric Parteli, study co-author and lecturer in computational geosciences at the University of Cologne, said in a statement.

That's sublimation, with temperature gradients created by solar radiation affecting the granular ice layer.

Dunes made out of solid methane particles have been discovered on Pluto.

"He quoted the late Sir Patrick Moore, the famous BBC Sky at Night presenter, describing Pluto in 1955 as "...plunged in everlasting dusk, silent, barren, and touched with the chill of death..." and says that that perspective has to shift.

The dunes have reportedly formed in the last 500,000 years. This activity is most likely caused by a thermal, convective overturning of the ice.

Besides Pluto, we already knew that Mars, Venus or the great moon of Saturn Titan had dunes. With a surface temperature of around -230 degrees Celsius, the individual grains may look like Earth sand, but they're made of something very different. "The winds needed to transport the sediments can therefore be 100 times lower", he says. "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".

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