Possible Ice Volcanoes Discovered on Pluto

Ice Volcanoes on Pluto?
The informally named feature Wright Mons, located south of Sputnik Planum on Pluto, is an unusual feature that’s about 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide and 13,000 feet (4 kilometers) high. It displays a summit depression (visible in the center of the image) that’s approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers) across, with a distinctive hummocky texture on its sides. The rim of the summit depression also shows concentric fracturing. New Horizons scientists believe that this mountain and another, Piccard Mons, could have been formed by the ‘cryovolcanic’ eruption of ices from beneath Pluto’s surface. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute[/caption]

The possible discovery of a pair of recently erupting ice volcanoes on Pluto are among the unexpected “astounding” findings just unveiled by perplexed scientists with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, barely four months after the historic first flyby of the last unexplored planet in our solar system.

“Nothing like this has been seen in the deep outer solar system,” said Jeffrey Moore, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team leader from NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, as the results so far were announced at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) this week in National Harbor, Maryland.

“The Pluto system is baffling us,” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, at a news media briefing on Nov. 9.

Two large mountainous features tens of miles across and several miles high, have been potentially identified by the team as volcanoes.

Scientists using New Horizons images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D topographic maps have discovered that two of Pluto’s mountains, informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, could possibly be ice volcanoes. The color is shown to depict changes in elevation, with blue indicating lower terrain and brown showing higher elevation; green terrains are at intermediate heights. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

They were found in terrain located south of Sputnik Planum – a vast area of smooth icy plains located within Pluto’s huge heart shaped region informally known as Tombaugh Regio. It may have formed very recently resulting from geologic activity within the past 10 million years.

The possible ice volcanoes, or cryovolcanoes, were found at two of Pluto’s most distinctive mountains and identified from images taken by New Horizons as it became Earth’s first emissary to hurtle past the small planet on July 14, 2015.

“All of our flyby plans succeeded,” Stern stated at the briefing.

“All of the data sets are spectacular.

Scientists created 3-D topographic maps from the probes images and discovered the possible ice volcanoes – informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons.

Wright Mons, pictured above, is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide and 13,000 feet (4 kilometers) high.

Both mountains appear to show summit depressions “with a large hole” visible in the center, similar to volcanoes on Earth. Scientists speculate “they may have formed by the ‘cryovolcanic’ eruption of ices from beneath Pluto’s surface.”

The erupting Plutonian ices might be composed of a melted slurry of water ice, nitrogen, ammonia and methane.

The depression inside Wright Mons is approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers) across and exhibits a “distinctive hummocky texture on its sides. The rim of the summit depression also shows concentric fracturing.”

“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 with NASA Ames, in a statement.

The team is quick to caution that the “interpretation of these features as volcanoes is tentative” and requires much more analysis.

“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 travelled 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.”

This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Right side inset from New Horizons team focuses on Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

More than 50 papers about the Pluto system are being presented at the AAS meeting this week.

So far New Horizon has transmitted back only about 20 percent of the data gathered, according to mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern.

“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the solar system,” said Stern.

“Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”

Locations of more than 1,000 craters mapped on Pluto by NASA’s New Horizons mission indicate a wide range of surface ages, which likely means that Pluto has been geologically active throughout its history. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The piano shaped probe gathered about 50 gigabits of data as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.

Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back. Thus bountiful new discoveries are on tap for a long time to come.

With 20 percent of the data now returned and more streaming back every day, the team is excited to debate what is all means.

“This is when the debates begin,” said Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters, at the missions Nov 9 media briefing. “This is when the heated discussions begin. This is when the entire science community starts staying up throughout the night.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon – shown in this colorized rendition. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Colorized/Annotated: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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