Pluto's 'Ice Dunes' Are Proof It Has 'Earth-like Characteristics'

Pluto's icy heart

Pluto's icy heart

When you think of a dune, you imagine a desert, or a beach - but what about dunes on Pluto?

Further investigation by an worldwide team of geographers, physicists and planetary scientists has now filled in the blanks. "This is one of the windiest spots on Pluto", Telfer said, "and the winds are in exactly the right direction".

Dune systems like those on Pluto turn out to be common throughout the solar system. It could have been made from lumps of ice with a chemical composition closer to that of our Sun.

The new study's lead author, Dr. Matt Telfer, explained that despite the understanding that planets with an atmosphere may have dunes on them, researchers were nevertheless surprised to find dunes on Pluto. Generally speaking, dunes are sculpted by winds and Pluto's atmosphere, 1,000 times thinner than ours, was thought to be too weak to generate strong enough gusts for this objective.

The research is yet another moment to reflect on just how surprisingly diverse Pluto has been revealed to be.

This image taken during the New Horizons mission shows the mountain range on the edge of the Sputnik Planitia ice plain, with dune formations clearly visible in the bottom half of the picture. 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.

A scientific team headed by British researchers published the findings yesterday in the journal Science.

The dunes were found on the boundary of the Sputnik Planitia ice plain. With a surface temperature of around -230 degrees Celsius, the individual grains may look like Earth sand, but they're made of something very different. They now plan to carry on investigating the dunes through computer simulations, which will in turn further enlighten them about how Pluto's winds shaped its geography.


"The likely source of the dune grains is methane ice blown from nearby mountains", said the Science report.

"On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to release sand particles into the air, but winds that are 20 percent weaker are then sufficient to maintain transport", says Dr Eric Parteli, Lecturer in Computational Geosciences at the University of Cologne, and study co-author. The border of the ice plain and mountain range provide the flawless location for such regular surface formations to appear. It would just kind of feel a lot like you're on another sand dune on the Earth'. If this is true, the dunes have to be more recent than the action of this convection otherwise they'd be churned apart by it.

These dunes are largely undisturbed on Pluto's icy crust, which suggests that they were formed within the past 500,000 years - or even more recently.

Nonetheless, he described the Telfer team's argument for uplifted methane granules as convincing.

And it may be that dunes themselves were emerging as a fascinating new feature of space exploration.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons was the first spacecraft ever to visit Pluto, passing within 7,770 miles (12,500 kilometers).

New Horizons is now approaching another object in the Kuiper Belt, known as 2014 MU69.

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