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Pluto might have ice volcanoes

Two of Pluto’s mountains could be cryovolcanoes – ice volcanoes – that might have spewed an ammonia-ice slurry in the recent geological past.

Using New Horizons images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D topographic maps, scientists discovered that two of Pluto’s mountains, informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, could be ice volcanoes. The color depicts changes in elevation, blue indicating lower terrain and brown showing higher elevation. Green terrains are at intermediate heights. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Using New Horizons images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D topographic maps, scientists discovered that two of Pluto’s mountains, informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, could be ice volcanoes. The color depicts changes in elevation, blue indicating lower terrain and brown showing higher elevation. Green terrains are at intermediate heights. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

New Horizons geologists combined images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D maps that indicate two of Pluto’s most distinctive mountains could be cryovolcanoes – ice volcanoes that may have been active in the recent geological past.

The findings were among the more than 50 discoveries being presented by NASA’s New Horizons mission researchers this week’s 47th Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) Division for Planetary Sciences in National Harbor, Maryland which began yesterday (November 9, 2015).

The two cryovolcano candidates are large features measuring tens of miles or kilometers across and several miles or kilometers high.

Oliver White is a New Horizons postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. White said:

These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing – a volcano.

While their appearance is similar to volcanoes on Earth that spew molten rock, ice volcanoes on Pluto are expected to emit a somewhat melted slurry of substances such as water ice, nitrogen, ammonia, or methane, say scientists. White said:

If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have traveled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don’t yet know.

If Pluto proves to have volcanoes, it will provide an important new clue to its geologic and atmospheric evolution. Jeffrey Moore is New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team leader. Moore said:

After all, nothing like this has been seen in the deep outer solar system.

Closer Look: Majestic Mountains and Frozen Plains: Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across. View larger. |  Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

On July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across. View larger. | Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

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Bottom line: On November 9, 2015 New Horizons mission geologists presented images of Pluto’s surface that indicate two of Pluto’s most distinctive mountains could be cryovolcanoes – ice volcanoes that may have been active in the recent geological past. The research was presented at the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) Division for Planetary Sciences in National Harbor, Maryland

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Eleanor Imster

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