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Pluto has dunes, but they're not made of sand
Space.com ^ | May 31, 2018 | Mike Wall, Space.com Senior Writer

Posted on 06/01/2018 6:44:44 PM PDT by ETL

Pluto is an uncanny-valley world, with landscapes and vistas that seem strikingly similar to those of Earth — until you take a closer look.

NASA's New Horizons mission, which flew by the dwarf planet in July 2015, found that Pluto has towering mountains, but of water ice rather than rock; vast plains of frozen nitrogen and other exotic materials; and blue skies provided by a wispy atmosphere that contains no appreciable oxygen.

And now, a new study reveals another alien parallel: Pluto has an extensive dune system, but the grains that make up the wind-blown mounds are certainly not sand.

The new discovery "shows us that Pluto's atmosphere and surface are interacting in a way that geologically/geomorphologically alters the surface," said study lead author Matt Telfer, a lecturer in physical geography at the University of Plymouth in England.

"That's exciting not just because it shows (again) the dynamism of these small, cold, dark distant worlds, but also for its inferences for very early solar system bodies," Telfer told Space.com via email.

Pluto is an uncanny-valley world, with landscapes and vistas that seem strikingly similar to those of Earth — until you take a closer look.

NASA's New Horizons mission, which flew by the dwarf planet in July 2015, found that Pluto has towering Institute , but of water ice rather than rock; vast plains of frozen nitrogen and other exotic materials; and blue skies provided by a wispy atmosphere that contains no appreciable oxygen.

And now, a new study reveals another alien parallel: Pluto has an extensive dune system, but the grains that make up the wind-blown mounds are certainly not sand.

The new discovery "shows us that Pluto's atmosphere and surface are interacting in a way that geologically/geomorphologically alters the surface," said study lead author Matt Telfer, a lecturer in physical geography at the University of Plymouth in England.

"That's exciting not just because it shows (again) the dynamism of these small, cold, dark distant worlds, but also for its inferences for very early solar system bodies," Telfer told Space.com via email.

Where mountains meet the plain

Telfer and his colleagues analyzed the imagery New Horizons captured during its epic flyby. They noticed a complex of ridges within Sputnik Planitia, a 620-mile-wide (1,000 kilometers) nitrogen-ice plain that forms the left lobe of Pluto's famous "heart."

The ridges ripple in a 47-mile-wide (75 km) sliver on the western edge of Sputnik Planitia, where the plain runs into the 3-mile-high (5 km) Al-Idrisi Montes mountain range. The newly identified features look a lot like wind-sculpted dunes, and that's exactly what they are, according to the study team.

"We're sure," Telfer said. "It's actually the relatively simple stuff, like their location, alignment (undisturbed by glacial movement, unlike the sublimation pits elsewhere), orientation (including the adjacent orthogonal wind streaks), and changes in regional orientation and spacing that nail it. It all makes perfect sense for dunes, and doesn't match what we'd see for sublimation pits."

"Sublimation pits" are spots where sunlight has caused relatively large amounts of icy material to sublime, or transition directly from the solid phase to gas. New Horizons imagery has revealed thousands of such depressions across Sputnik Planitia, and a series of aligned pits was the most viable alternative explanation for the dune features, Telfer and his colleagues wrote in the new study, which was published online today (May 31) in the journal Science.

Sublimation is an important part of the dunes' story, the researchers found. They performed modeling work that suggested Pluto's winds are strong enough to create the Sputnik Planitia dune system — as long as the grains being blown were already airborne. Sublimation is pretty much the only way to make this happen, with the grains being lofted by rising gas, according to the study team.

The wind-blown grains are probably frozen methane that originated in the nearby mountain range, but bits of nitrogen ice are another possibility, the authors wrote.

The paucity of craters speckling Sputnik Planitia shows that the ice plain's surface has been shaped by geological activity recently. And the dunes are likely young as well; the study team believes they formed within the past 500,000 years or so.

A surprising find

Dune systems appear to be common throughout the solar system. Such features have been confirmed on Earth, Mars, Venus and Saturn's huge moon Titan, for example, and they may even exist on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was studied up close by Europe's Rosetta mission from 2014 through 2016.

Still, finding dunes on Pluto was unexpected, given the dwarf planet's very thin air, experts said.

"What makes this discovery surprising is that the sediment can be mobilized despite Pluto's tenuous atmosphere, with a surface pressure (1 Pa) that is a factor of 100,000 times lower than that on Earth," Alexander Hayes, an assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University who was not involved in the new study, wrote in an accompanying "Perspectives" piece in the same issue of Science.

Telfer expressed similar sentiments: "It was hard to see how the wind could influence anything, until you do the math."

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

"Nature tends to converge toward a set of relatively few forms and generic patterns using a variety of processes," he wrote. "Accordingly, much work is left to do to understand dunes on Pluto. Most notably, it remains to be shown how high the dunes are, when they are most active, whether they change and whether entrainment can occur without lofting."

New Horizons' work is far from done, by the way. The probe is now gearing up for a flyby of a small object called 2014 MU69, which lies about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto. That close encounter, which will occur on Jan. 1, 2019, is the centerpiece of New Horizons' extended mission.


TOPICS: Astronomy; Chit/Chat; Science
KEYWORDS: pluto; xplanets
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This photo taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its July 2015 flyby of Pluto
shows the mountain range on the edge of the dwarf planet’s Sputnik Planitia ice plain.
Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute


1 posted on 06/01/2018 6:44:45 PM PDT by ETL
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To: SunkenCiv

Ping


2 posted on 06/01/2018 6:45:21 PM PDT by ETL (Obama-Hillary, REAL Russia collusion! Uranium-One Deal, Missile Defense, Iran Deal, Nukes: Click ETL)
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To: ETL

Obviously, the Gamelons.


3 posted on 06/01/2018 6:47:04 PM PDT by wally_bert (I didn't get where I am today by selling ice cream tasting of bookends, pumice stone & West Germany)
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To: ETL

New Horizons was one of NASA’s greatest success stories. We all expected a cratered moonscape. Who could’ve ever imagined Pluto would be so dynamic?


4 posted on 06/01/2018 6:49:00 PM PDT by Drew68
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To: wally_bert; Drew68

Sorry, just realized I screwed up a bit with the excerpt. Not easy doing this stuff on a tablet.


5 posted on 06/01/2018 6:58:36 PM PDT by ETL (Obama-Hillary, REAL Russia collusion! Uranium-One Deal, Missile Defense, Iran Deal, Nukes: Click ETL)
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To: ETL

Fat fingered me tries to use a regular keyboard whenever possible.


6 posted on 06/01/2018 6:59:36 PM PDT by wally_bert (I didn't get where I am today by selling ice cream tasting of bookends, pumice stone & West Germany)
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To: wally_bert

I don’t believe much of any of this FAKE SCIENCE. These folks are taking nothing more than digital data and fantasizing about what it could mean.

FANTASY it is. Its about selling new generations on fake possibilities.


7 posted on 06/01/2018 7:03:22 PM PDT by George from New England (escaped CT in 2006, now living north of Tampa)
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To: ETL

Are we talkin’ about the Planet Pluto?


8 posted on 06/01/2018 7:08:48 PM PDT by Paladin2
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To: Paladin2

Just Pluto isn’t it or did it get planet status?


9 posted on 06/01/2018 7:10:34 PM PDT by wally_bert (I didn't get where I am today by selling ice cream tasting of bookends, pumice stone & West Germany)
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To: ETL
> Pluto has dunes <

Funny, but in all my years of watching cartoons I never noticed that.


10 posted on 06/01/2018 7:16:12 PM PDT by Leaning Right (I have already previewed or do not wish to preview this composition.)
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To: All
"Pluto has dunes, but they're not made of sand."

They are made of SPICE!!!!


11 posted on 06/01/2018 7:51:46 PM PDT by LegendHasIt
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To: wally_bert

Obviously, the Gamelons.

Leader Desslock approves

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=il9ps2jqBEU


12 posted on 06/01/2018 8:10:33 PM PDT by ak267
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To: wally_bert

Pluto is a

Dwarf Planet

officially


13 posted on 06/01/2018 8:35:13 PM PDT by txnativegop (The political left, Mankinds intellectual hemlock)
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To: ETL
The only way to 'pute is with a PC and a good ol' fashioned mouse.
14 posted on 06/01/2018 8:58:24 PM PDT by knarf (I say things that are true, I have no proof, but they're true)
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To: knarf

Absolutely. Only I don’t have regular access to a PC these days.


15 posted on 06/01/2018 10:24:42 PM PDT by ETL (Obama-Hillary, REAL Russia collusion! Uranium-One Deal, Missile Defense, Iran Deal, Nukes: Click ETL)
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To: txnativegop

Isn’t the word “Dwarf” verboten? Don’t they now use “height challenged” or “size challenged”?

Re the photos of the “ice mountains”. Guess there will be no skiing for visitors.


16 posted on 06/01/2018 11:05:40 PM PDT by MadMax, the Grinning Reaper
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To: ETL

I read another article on Pluto this week.

A new theory is becoming popular - that Pluto did not coalesce from dust particles and gas like a planet.

Instead, it may be an aggregation of as many as one billion comets!


17 posted on 06/02/2018 12:24:20 AM PDT by zeestephen
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To: LegendHasIt

THE SPICE MUST FLOW..!


18 posted on 06/02/2018 1:30:07 AM PDT by Stormy_2021 (It's like a koala bear crapped a rainbow in my brain...)
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To: ETL

As long as Uranus doesn’t have piles.


19 posted on 06/02/2018 4:58:51 AM PDT by Old Yeller (Auto-correct has become my worst enema.)
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To: MadMax, the Grinning Reaper

apparently it doesn’t apply to celestial bodies . . .YET


20 posted on 06/02/2018 11:16:52 AM PDT by txnativegop (The political left, Mankinds intellectual hemlock)
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