Dunes made of tiny frozen methane grains discovered on Pluto

Pluto's icy heart

As winds on the dwarf planet are able to reach levels approaching 25 miles per hour, 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 likely source of the dune grains is methane ice blown from nearby mountains, say the authors, although nitrogen ice can not be ruled out, as a source.

Dunes are formed when the wind blows grains of sand into a sheltered area, where it accumulates over time and develops into an increasingly larger mound. We see mountains, glaciers, and ice moving.

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]". "No one knew what to expect from its surface and most scientists shied away from detailed speculation, except to say that the one thing we should expect is to be surprised". In comparison with the pressure of Earth's atmosphere, the Pluto's atmosphere has got a lower surface pressure.

The new study is far from the final word on Pluto's dunes, stressed Hayes, who also directs Cornell's Spacecraft Planetary Imaging Facility.

The team has yet to determine the height of the dunes; Telfer guesses they're at least tens of meters (yards) tall. On Pluto, the sun turns solids directly into gas.

A study published today in the journal Science confirms that the icy dwarf planet has dunes of its own. Despite being an unlikely characteristic of an icy world with little wind, scientists also believe they have an explanation of how they formed. And we will probably see dunes, river valleys and mountains, just as we do within the solar system.

"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.

A high-resolution color-enhanced image of Pluto.

Dunes are known to form on Earth, Mars, Venus, Titan and Comet 67P - and now on the dwarf planet Pluto, according to a new study, the latest discovery from New Horizons. Furthermore, spectral and numerical models showed that Pluto's dunes may form from a thin layer of methane that gets released into the air due to nitrogen ice below it sublimating - or turning directly from a solid to a gas.

This is a significant discovery, because dunes are only produced when specific conditions occur, and recognition of these conditions on Pluto suggests that the minor planet might be much more active than previously envisaged. The driving force of this process may be the heating of the atmosphere by the Sun, which raises the temperature above minus 230 degrees Celsius, that is the freezing point of nitrogen.

"We have been focusing on what's close to us, but there's a wealth of information in the distant reaches of the solar system too", said Dr. Jani Radebaugh, Associate Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at Brigham Young University. They confirmed that education is a dune composed of methane ice sand.

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