As spacecraft New Horizons recently sauntered past Pluto, images sent back to Earth made their way into the hands of a team that confirmed a large part of the dwarf planet’s surface was molded by ice volcanos—and some eruptions are fairly recent on the cosmos calendar.
The findings provide much more detailed evidence about volcanoes on Pluto, and suggest that with all the ice contained there, heat from the planet’s core could maintain a subsurface ocean, a feature known to exist on other planets.
The idea conjures images from mythology or fantasy fiction: a frozen world where volcanoes belch liquid nitrogen and ice, and where underground, close to the pressures and heat of the world’s heart, a vast ocean lies in total darkness. Ce la space.
Ice volcanoes are known from other worlds like Enceladus, the ice-moon of Jupiter, but not like this.
180 miles of Pluto’s surface is ice formed from H20, under which could be a liquid water ocean, according to some existing models in which such a scenario is possible. Back on the surface, nitrogen ice sits at a temperature much closer to its melting point, even in the frigidity of Plutonian weather.
In these conditions, scientists looking at the pictures from New Horizon posit that an area of “hummocky” texture and large rises and mounds located southwest of the famous Sputnik Planitia nitrogen ice sheet was formed by volcanoes.
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