‘Surprising’ methane dunes found on Pluto

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

Nearly three years have passed since New Horizons performed its historic flyby of Pluto, but we might just be getting started when it comes to the discoveries it will bring.

"Most notably, it remains to be shown how high the dunes are, when they are most active, whether they change" and whether particles can be swept into dunes without rising into the air.

"When we first saw the New Horizons images, we thought instantly that these were dunes but it was really surprising because we know there is not much of an atmosphere", said co-author Jani Radebaugh, associate professor in the department of geological sciences at Brigham Young University. "This is one of the windiest spots on Pluto", Telfer said, "and the winds are in exactly the right direction". But there was something else that piqued Radebaugh's interest. These dunes may have similar shapes, but are produced by slightly different processes, depending on the environmental conditions of the body in question.

But this challenged conventional wisdom in a couple of ways. The other issue was the material itself. They reported that a nitrogen ice sheet over the top of Sputnik Planitia was converted into gas, elevating the methane particles into the atmosphere. The researchers carried out spatial analysis of nearby wind streaks and the dunes themselves, along with spectral and numerical modeling.

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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.

Identification of the dunes on Pluto has shown that icy grains must be transportable across the planetary surface, so there must be a mechanism to loft the grains into the thin wind that blows over Pluto's smooth and icy plains. "The New Horizons data has given us a new level of detail, but we had to work hard to explain how it was possible to get the supply of sediment, a non-cohesive surface and wind you need for dunes", Matt Telfer, from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom and lead author of the paper describing the formations, said in a statement Thursday. In comparison with the pressure of Earth's atmosphere, the Pluto's atmosphere has got a lower surface pressure. The temperature gradients in the granular ice layer, caused by solar radiation, also play an important role in the onset of the saltation process [movement of particles over an uneven surface]. These dunes could also contain frozen nitrogen. 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. Pluto has many such similarities with Earth in its landscape, dunes and more, all though it is far away from the Sun.

Although these rippled features look like transverse sand dunes found on Earth, they are actually made of small methane ice particles.

He noted there are dunes on the scorching surface of Venus under a dense atmosphere and out in the distant reaches of the solar system at minus 230 degrees Celsius (minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit) under a thin atmosphere.

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