Methane dunes at Pluto's heart | Research

Scientists surprised to find dunes on Pluto that are made of tiny grains of methane

Launched in 2006, New Horizons was the first spacecraft ever to visit Pluto, passing within 12,500 kilometres. An worldwide research team on Thursday conveyed the fact that the Pluto is covered with surprising dunes of methane ice.

"The likely source of the dune grains is methane ice blown from nearby mountains", said the Science report. Within these highly detailed images, researchers noticed what looked to be an extensive system of odd dunes stretching 75 miles along the boundary of Pluto's massive Al-Idrisi Montes mountain range and Sputnik Planitia - a nitrogen-ice plain that forms the left lobe of the planet'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.

With Pluto's extremely thin air, it seemed very unlikely that dunes will be able to form in the dwarf planet.

Researchers modeled the conditions they saw and concluded that the "sand" is made of nitrogen or methane ice. Pluto's mild winds then carried the particles to the area where the dunes on Pluto are now located. 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.

Prof Hayes says we now know Pluto to be "a geologically diverse and dynamic world driven by internal heat, extreme seasons and sublimating ices". "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".

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The researchers now plan to continue their investigations into the history of Pluto's dunes through computer simulations, which will enable them to expand knowledge of the role wind has played in Pluto's wider geology. Pluto has a system of dunes, but they're not made from sand.

Mild winds blow across the Pluto's surface at a speed of about nineteen to twenty-five miles which corresponds to approximately thirty to forty kilometers per hour.

The scientists believe the features are likely to have been formed within the last 500,000 years, judging by their undisturbed morphology and their relationship to the underlying glacial ice. It would just kind of feel a lot like you're on another sand dune on the Earth'. Clearly, they are not of sand, as are the dunes of the Sahara, or even of water ice, as they are in Antarctica.

"We knew that every solar system body with an atmosphere and a solid rocky surface has dunes on it, but we didn't know what we'd find on Pluto", study lead author Matt Telfer of the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom said.

Dr. Eric Parteli of the University of Cologne explains that Pluto's low gravity and atmospheric pressure means that the wind strength necessary for sediment transport can be 100,000 times lower than on Earth.

On Pluto, solar radiation also causes temperature gradients in the granular ice layer, which contributes to the ability of dunes to form. If this is true, the dunes have to be more recent than the action of this convection otherwise they'd be churned apart by it.

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