Pluto has an area on its surface with ice volcanoes up to seven kilometres tall, according to an analysis of images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. Ice volcanoes are similar to normal volcanoes but instead of being formed from molten rock, they are made by frozen liquids like ammonia and water. The researchers analysed images of an area lying to the south-west of the Sputnik Planitia ice sheet and they found many volcanic domes in the region, ranging from a few kilometres up to seven kilometres tall, and around 10km to 150km across, with some domes merging to form larger structures.
Journal/conference: Nature Communications
Link to research (DOI): 10.1038/s41467-022-29056-3
Organisation/s: Southwest Research Institute, USA
Funder: NASA’s New Horizons mission (grant numbers NASW-02008 and
NAS5-97271/TaskOrder30). BS acknowledges the Centre National d’Etudes
Spatiales (CNES) for its financial support through its “Système Solaire” program. A
portion of this research was carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California
Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space
Planetary science: Ice volcano activity on Pluto *IMAGES*
An analysis of images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reveals an area of the dwarf planet dominated by relatively recent ice volcano activity, which contains volcanoes up to 7km tall. The findings are published in Nature Communications.
Cryovolcanism (ice volcanism) has been observed at several places in our Solar System and describes the placement of icy material via volcanic processes. Pluto has a rocky core but previous research has suggested interior heating would be at a low level for most of Pluto’s history.
Kelsi Singer and colleagues analysed images of an area lying to the south-west of the Sputnik Planitia ice sheet, which covers an ancient impact basin of approximately 1,000km and is dominated by large rises with irregular flanks. The authors examined the geomorphology and composition of the area and suggest it was created by cryovolcanism and the material consists mostly of water ice. They describe many volcanic domes in the region, ranging from a few kilometres up to 7km tall, and around 10km to 150km across, with some domes merging to form larger structures. The authors suggest the inferred volume of a large structure known as Wright Mons is similar to the volume of Mauna Loa in Hawai’i — one of the biggest volcanoes on Earth. They indicate that creation of the terrain would have required several eruption sites and a large volume of material to create the ice volcanoes.
The authors observed the terrain is free from impact craters, which is in contrast to some other areas of Pluto’s surface. The authors hence propose that the cryovolcanic activity in this area must be relatively recent in Pluto’s history and may indicate that Pluto’s internal structure has residual heat or more heat than previously anticipated, to drive such cryovolcanic activity.