A 'Wright Mons-ter': Pluto's Possible Ice Volcano Is Huge
Pluto's weirdly dynamic and 'young' surface has just become even more intriguing with the release of this stunning color image of what is thought to be a huge cryovolcano, or ice volcano.
A 'Wright Mons-ter': Pluto's Ice Volcano Is Huge
Pluto's weirdly dynamic and "young" surface has just become even more intriguing with the release of this stunning color image of what is thought to be a huge cryovolcano, or ice volcano.
As the dwarf planet is so far away from the sun, it was assumed, before the historic New Horizons Pluto flyby in July, that it would be a frozen, static and crater-filled world. But as observations by the NASA spacecraft are showing us, Pluto has an astonishing impact crater-less surface, with some regions dominated by dynamical atmospheric and surface processes.
Pluto may be cold, but even ices in the Kuiper Belt are slowly moving, even setting up their own "lava lamp"-like convection flows. It is also hypothesized that through the heating of ices inside Pluto's crust, melted volatiles (like water or methane) will erupt to the surface, much like molten rock erupts from the core of our planet to form volcanoes.
Now, with the discovery of this 2.5 mile-high mountain on Pluto's surface, planetary scientists are trying to understand how the 90 miles-wide feature formed and whether it could be yet another sign of the small world's surprising dynamism and a striking example of cryovolcanism.
Informally named "Wright Mons," should this huge feature indeed be confirmed to be a cryovolcano it will be the largest such example in the outer solar system. (The inner solar system, of course, is dominated by the Martian mega-volcano Olympus Mons that pushes above the Red Planet's atmosphere, towering 16 miles high.)
Of particular interest in this color image of Wright Mons is the distribution of red material - why isn't it more widespread around Pluto's globe? Also, there appears to be few impact craters around Wright Mons, in fact, there is only one impact crater on the mountain itself. This tells us that if it really is an ice volcano, it had to have been active in recent geological history - if it was an inactive, static artifact, it should be peppered with impact craters. Instead, it appears recently active processes - possibly related to Pluto's ice - have eroded most of the impact craters away.
In short, Pluto is telling us a story through its surprisingly active geologic processes, processes that few scientists would have bet on existing in the outermost reaches of the solar system before New Horizons' dwarf planet encounter.
This observation shows the candidate cryovolcano Wright Mons taken by the New Horizons spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015. Color has been enhanced by data from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), from a range of 21,000 miles (34,000 kilometers) and at a resolution of about 2,100 feet (650 meters) per pixel. The entire scene is 140 miles (230 kilometers) across.
Newly returned pictures taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft are giving scientists -- and the rest of us -- the most detailed views of Pluto’s stunningly diverse landscape. “We continue to be amazed by what we see,” NASA chief scientist John Grunsfeld said in a statement. The latest images form a strip 50 miles wide and were taken when New Horizons was about 15 minutes away from its closest approach to Pluto on July 14.
As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft raced toward a July 14 close encounter with Pluto, the probe’s telescopic long-range camera got to work on a sequence of pictures that revealed features smaller than half of a city block. Pluto’s surface turned out to be unexpectedly diverse, evidence of a complicated and rich geology. The mosaic pictured here starts about 500 miles northwest of Pluto's smooth Sputnik Planum region and covers the rugged al-Idrisi mountains, the shoreline of Sputnik Planum and its icy plains.
This image has been scaled and rotated, for the full, high-resolution view,
Scientists aren’t sure yet how some of Pluto’s craters came to contain layers, such as the one picture here in the upper right. “Layers in geology usually mean an important change in composition or event, but at the moment New Horizons team members don’t know if they are seeing local, regional or global layering,” NASA said. New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) took a series of images about 15 minutes before the spacecraft’s July 14 close encounter with Pluto. The dark crater at the center of the image is apparently younger than the others because material thrown out by the impact is still visible. Most of the craters are within a 155-mile wide region known as Burney Basin, the outer rim of which appears as a line of hills at the bottom of this image.
New Horizons gathered a 50-mile-wide view of Pluto’s rugged northern hemisphere, including a 1.2-mile high cliff, seen here from the left to the upper right, during a series of pictures taken by the spacecraft’s telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14. The cliff is part of a canyon system that stretches for hundreds of miles across Pluto’s northern hemisphere. Scientists believe the mountains in the middle are comprised of water ice that has been changed by the motion of nitrogen or other exotic ice glaciers over the eons. At the bottom of the image, which was taken when New Horizons was about 10,000 miles from Pluto, the badlands meet the giant icy plains of Sputnik Planum.
Blocks of ice, upper left, appeared to be jammed together in an area the New Horizon scientists are calling the al-Idrisi mountains. Some of the mountains seem to be coated with a dark material, while others are bright. Scientists think material crushed between the mountains may be from the ice blocks jostling back and forth. The mountains end at the shoreline of a region named Sputnik Planum, which is marked by soft, nitrogen-rich ices that form a nearly flat surface. New Horizon’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) took a series of images in the span of about one minute at 11:36 Universal Time on July 14, about 15 minutes before the spacecraft’s closest approach.