Pluto Has Dunes Made Of Methane Ice, NASA’s New Horizons Data Shows

Pluto Has Dunes But They're Not Made of Sand

Grainy, icy 'dunes' found on Pluto

BYU Professor Jani Radebaugh and a team of global scientists discovered a series of "sand dunes" made of methane ice on Pluto.

A British-led team announced the findings on Thursday (Friday NZ time) in the journal Science.

The images of the New Horizons feature mounds of methane resting on the huge glacier, which forms the region known as the Sputnik Planitia. It could have been made from lumps of ice with a chemical composition closer to that of our Sun.

The study's lead author, Matt Telfer of Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, noted there were dunes on the scorching surface of Venus under a dense atmosphere and in the distant reaches of the solar system at minus 230 degrees Celsius under a thin atmosphere.

Scientists have discovered dunes on Pluto's surface, which are likely to have been formed of methane ice grains released into its atmosphere.

The pale gray and white ridges were revealed by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft during its 2015 flyby, The Associated Press reported. What they got was an icy world with a giant heart-shaped plain and water-ice mountains, and hints of geological activity deep below the surface.

While clearly observing the dunes on Pluto, scientists still had to work hard to determine just how these could have ever ended up on the dwarf planet, according to Dr. Telfer. The recent study of results from New Horizons indicates that there is a field of dunes at the edge of Pluto's largest plain, Sputnik Planitia. "It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around -230 degrees Celsius [-382 degrees Fahrenheit], we still get dunes forming". Streaks on the surface indicate the wind blows in a perpendicular direction to the dunes. The researchers write that this "sand" as we see it isn't tiny bits of rocky material like we're used to here on Earth, but actually frozen methane particles that have gathered into dune-like shapes.

"On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to release sand particles into the air, but winds that are 20% weaker are then sufficient to maintain transport", Eric Parteli, study co-author and lecturer in computational geosciences at the University of Cologne, said in a statement. Pluto has many such similarities with Earth in its landscape, dunes and more, all though it is far away from the Sun.

If you take a look at this photo without knowing the source of it, you'll say it's an image of a beach with sand dunes. "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. He was not involved in the study.

Nonetheless, he described the Telfer team's argument for uplifted methane granules as convincing. It's expected to zip past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule - orbiting 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto - on January 1. At the moment the space probe New Horizons is approaching another object in the Kuiper belt TRANS-Neptunian asteroid 2014 MU69. Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute.

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