New Horizons data reveals dunes made of methane on Pluto

Pluto Has Dunes But They're Not Made of Sand

New Horizons data reveals dunes made of methane on Pluto

While alternated light and dark education, distinguished correct and identical shape, resembled the dunes of Mars, Titan and Earth.

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

An worldwide team of geographers, physicists and planetary scientists analyzed detailed images of the dwarf planet's surface from July 2015, captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.

These plains in the left lobe of Pluto's "heart" are known as Sputnik Planitia. The dunes themselves are spread over an area about 7 km long. Several clues revealed that these landforms were created by wind; namely, the locations of the ridges and their distribution patterns demonstrate this. This lower surface pressure of the Pluto's atmosphere enables the solid methane grains to mobilize in the atmosphere and become airborne.

Researchers said the dunes appear to be made mostly of icy specks of methane the size of sand, with some frozen nitrogen likely mixed in. "If an extremely tenuous atmosphere like that of Pluto can support the generation of bedforms from wind-driven sediment", poses Hayes in his Perspective, "what kind of aeolian activity might we see on places like Io or Triton?"

To be able to form, dunes need an atmosphere dense enough to make wind transport possible, a supply of dry particles, and a mechanism that lifts particles off the ground. These gentle winds give rise to the ripples at the border of an ice plain and the mountain range.

How did Pluto form its mysterious dunes?
Pluto's dunes are unlike the dunes made of sand seen on Earth though; instead, they are likely made of tiny grains of methane ice. The newly identified features look a lot like wind-sculpted dunes, and that's exactly what they are, according to the study team.

When you think of a dune, you imagine a desert, or a beach - but what about dunes on Pluto? They are formed by transferring crystals on the surface of Pluto.

Talk about weird science: Astronomers have discovered dunes of ice on Pluto, saying that it's evidence the distant dwarf planet has "Earth-like characteristics".

"When we first saw the images of New Horizons, we immediately thought they were dunes, which was very surprising because we knew there was not really any atmosphere", says Jani Radebaugh, co-discoverer and geology professor at Brigham Young University in the United States. Still, no one expected to find them on Pluto, which has an incredibly thin atmosphere.

Dune systems like those on Pluto turn out to be common throughout the solar system. In fact, recent research has suggested that Pluto might be actually be the result of a collection of a billion or so frigid comets that crashed into each other, and a new scientific paper is helping to paint a more detailed picture of its remarkable surface features.

The scientists estimate that these dunes formed sometime in the last 500,000 years, due to their undisturbed form and the historically convective glacial ice beneath it.

According to Eric Parteli, such dunes formation on the Earth requires sand and stronger winds. The temperature gradients in the granular ice layer, caused by solar radiation, also play an important role in the onset of the saltation process. These particles eventually settle with a little help from gravity, ultimately forming wind-swept dunes comparable to those found on Earth.

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