We learn more fascinating and otherworldly things about our universe the farther out into space we explore. Some of our discoveries bend our understanding of science, and some completely baffle us. This is the case now that scientists have confirmed that there are, in fact, ice volcanoes on Pluto.
Icy mystery of the dwarf planet
When Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto in 2015, we got our first glimpse at some pretty perplexing features on the dwarf planet’s surface. Scientists speculated that two gigantic peaks could be volcanoes pouring out an icy slush instead of lava. Now, a full analysis of the photos and topographical data of Pluto confirm that these are indeed volcanoes. Not just that, the two volcanoes are actually a collection of many icy volcanoes, some 7,000 meters high and 150 kilometers across.
But how could this be? How could ice flow like this on a planet whose surface is -233 Celsius (-387.4 Fahrenheit)? What could be going on beneath Pluto to cause volcanic activity?
How ice flows like lava
“It’s considered kind of a big claim to have icy volcanism,” said Dr. Kelsi Singer, a New Horizons co-investigator. “It’s theoretically possible, but there aren’t a ton of other examples in the solar system, and they are all really different looking, and do not look like the features on Pluto.”
With Pluto’s very low temperature, this shouldn’t be possible at all. Scientists are working and investigating even further to figure out what could be causing this freezing volcanism. The data shows that along with slushy ice there are some “antifreeze” components in the volcanic material, such as ammonia or methanol, which could contribute to the flowing effect.
Some offer the idea that Pluto’s rocky core might be warmer than once thought. It’s thought that the radioactive decay of some of its elements could produce enough energy that, when released, causes occasional volcanic eruptions.
Scientists are still puzzling this out. What’s certain, though, is that Pluto is not the inactive ice ball we once thought, and we’re learning more things about our own solar system and universe the more we look at it.
Source Study: Nature Communications — Large-scale cryovolcanic resurfacing on Pluto | Nature Communications