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Pluto has 'Earth-like characteristics,' study says

05 June 2018

And we will probably see dunes, river valleys and mountains, just as we do within the solar system.

Scientists have discovered dunes on Pluto which look a lot like the mounds of sand found near beaches here in the UK. "However, despite being 30 times farther away from the Sun as the Earth, it turns out Pluto still has Earth-like characteristics".

"Pretty much nowhere else we know of is cold enough!" the study's lead author, Matt Telfer of Plymouth University in England, said via email Thursday. Quartz fragments commonly supply the sand for Earth dunes.

Even though the structures are referred to as dunes, there is a chance that they may not be it.

"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.

A study published today in the journal Science confirms that the icy dwarf planet has dunes of its own. Within these highly detailed images, researchers noticed what looked to be an extensive system of unusual dunes stretching 75 miles along the boundary of Pluto's massive Al-Idrisi Montes mountain range and Sputnik Planitia - a nitrogen-ice plain that forms the left lobe of the planet's famous "heart". Alternatively, the methane may come directly from the bottom of the nearby mountain range, getting swept up in the winds that flow down the mountainous slopes at roughly 22 miles per hour (35 kilometers per hour). The recent study of results from New Horizons indicates that there is a field of dunes at the edge of Pluto's largest plain, Sputnik Planitia.

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The likely source of the dune grains is methane ice blown from nearby mountains, although nitrogen ice can not be ruled out, as a source. The ice is a mixture of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane; according to the model, methane is still solid as nitrogen vaporises, and so grains of methane ice are thrown from the surface to be caught by the wind.

But perhaps the most surprising outcome of New Horizons' journey was not the deeper peek into Pluto's oddities. They're made out of methane ice grains instead.

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.

With that warming of the ice below the surface, methane crystals should enable nitrogen ice to sublimate - and that would allow the methane crystals to be wafted into the atmosphere. This implies that the basics of dune formation are tiny bits of grains and a kind of force just like that of the wind.

Eric Parteli, lecturer in Computational Geosciences at the University of Cologne, said, "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 [than on Earth]". The temperature gradients in the granular ice layer, caused by solar radiation, also play an important role in the onset of the saltation process. For instance, Pluto's heart-shaped central plain has a peculiar polygonal pattern which resembles the surface of gently boiling water.

Pluto has 'Earth-like characteristics,' study says