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Ice volcanoes on Pluto may still be erupting

An image of Pluto taken by the New Horizons probe in 2015 with evidence for potential cryovolcanism marked in blue. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Isaac Herrera/Kelsi Singer)
An image of Pluto taken by the New Horizons probe in 2015 with evidence for potential cryovolcanism marked in blue. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Isaac Herrera/Kelsi Singer)

According to a recent study, a region of Pluto that experts believe was produced by the explosion of ice volcanoes is unique on the dwarf planet and in the solar system. Pluto, a dwarf planet and the biggest object in the Kuiper Belt, was photographed in detail by NASA's New Horizons mission, which launched in 2006. A new investigation looks at photos of a region with two large mounds that experts believe are ice volcanoes. According to the findings, the surface around these mounds was most likely produced by the recent activity of ice volcanoes or cryovolcanoes. The discovery suggests that these volcanoes may still be active and that liquid water, or something similar, flows or has recently flowed beneath Pluto's surface. Because of the current activity, scientists believe Pluto's core has more heat than previously assumed. According to the scientists, these findings might potentially raise the prospect of life beneath Pluto's surface, based on another recent study.

Photographs of an area dominated by two huge mounds known as Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, which experts believe are cryovolcanoes, were studied by the researchers. Piccard Mons is around 4 miles (7 kilometers) high and 150 miles (250 kilometers) broad, whereas Wright Mons is 2.5 to 3 miles (4 to 5 kilometers) high and 90 miles (150 kilometers) wide. At their tops, the alleged ice volcanoes feature extraordinarily deep depressions; the one on Wright Mons is nearly as deep as the mount is tall. Many portions of the region are also bumpy or "hummocky," with undulating, spherical mounds. Smaller mounds generated by ice volcanoes might have accumulated over time to build these two major mounds, according to the experts.

There are no other locations on Pluto that look like this region, according to Kelsi Singer, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and the study's primary author. It's also the only one of its kind in the solar system. This region of Pluto features few or no impact craters, indicating that it was produced very recently in geological time. The area is likely little more than one or two billion years old, with certain portions being less than 200 million years old, based on the lack of craters.

Because much of Pluto's surface is formed of ice and temperatures on Pluto are much below the freezing point of water, cryovolcanoes are similar to volcanoes on Earth in certain aspects. That implies liquid water or anything similar to it that is at least partially fluid or mobile would behave similarly to magma on Earth, rising to the surface following an eruption and freezing, or hardening, into a solid.

It's unlikely to come up fully liquid, according to Singer. It's probably more like a slushy mixture of liquid and ice, or it may even be a flowing solid, similar to ketchup or silly putty. It might even be thicker ice that still flows. Because we have glaciers on Earth, we all know that ice can flow.

Though scientists aren't sure how Pluto's cryovolcanic activity works, it's most likely fuelled by radiogenic heat produced by radioactive materials decaying in the dwarf planet's innards. Although Pluto lacks plate tectonics, the intricate system of moving continental crust that underpins geologic activity on Earth, a comparable phenomenon is one of the sources of heat in the Earth's core. Scientists refer to geologic activity on Pluto as "general tectonics," which may produce characteristics like faults in rock but lacks tectonic plates.

Pluto's cryovolcanoes are low-profile volcanoes that emerge from the slow buildup of lava flows into spherical formations, comparable to shield volcanoes on Earth. (Think of the Hawaiian island volcanoes rather than a Mount Saint Helens or Vesuvius-style eruption.) However, unlike what scientists believe happened on Pluto, shield volcanoes normally originate from highly liquid lava. Calderas are depressions in the heart of volcanoes on Earth and other planets that emerge when a recently erupted volcano collapses into the void left by all the debris it shot forth.

However, the depression on Wright Mons is so deep that the volcano would have to lose about half of its volume to resemble Mauna Loa, a shield volcano in Hawaii that is one of the world's largest volcanoes and has a relatively small caldera, despite the fact that the two structures are similar in volume. Many academics still don't understand these characteristics, how they were generated, or how cryovolcanism works on Pluto. Given earlier evidence showing Pluto was hot when it initially formed and might still have a liquid ocean beneath its ice surface, the thought that liquid water could exist beneath Pluto's surface boosts the probability of life being on Pluto from almost non-existent to somewhat more feasible.

I believe it's a bit more encouraging, and there could be some heat and liquid, possibly liquid water, closer to the surface, Singer said. However, impoverished bacteria wishing to dwell on Pluto face some significant obstacles.

The findings are detailed in a report published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday (March 29).

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