New Findings Suggest Cryovolcanoes on Pluto

On November 9th, New Horizons mission geologists presented evidence that Pluto’s largest and most distinctive mountains might indeed be cryovolcanoes, or ice volcanoes, that are likely to have been active in Pluto’s recent geological past.

The findings are just one of over fifty new reports of exciting discoveries about Pluto, revealed just four months after the New Horizons spacecraft first encountered the dwarf planet. Geologists and astronomers presented this new research at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in National Harbor, Maryland, which began on November 9th.

Elevation maps of Pluto
Elevation maps of Pluto. Blue indicates lower terrain, green shows higher elevation, and green indicates intermediate heights. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons geologists presented 3-D elevation maps of Pluto’s surface, specifically of two of Pluto’s largest mountains, informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons.

“These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing—a volcano,” said Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher with NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, in a New Horizons blog post.

The elevation maps suggest that these two distinctive mountains, which measure tens of miles across and several miles high, could be ice volcanoes. The research team is still tentative in its conclusions, but their current hypothesis strongly explains the geological formation of the two mountains.

White says, “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 travelled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond.”

The scientists don’t yet have all the explanations of their hypothesis, though. White muses, “Why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don’t yet know.”   

However, while Earthly volcanoes spew fiery molten rock, these cryovolcanoes are a little different: NASA scientists suspect that they would emit “a somewhat melted slurry of substances such as water ice, nitrogen, ammonia, or methane.”

If Pluto’s distinctive mountains are indeed volcanoes, the findings will provide important insight into geologic and atmospheric evolution in space.

Wright Mons
Mountain Wright Mons displays a 35-mile wide summit depression. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The scientific findings regarding Pluto’s geology and atmospheric systems that have emerged over the last four months have consistently continued to surprise NASA’s New Horizons mission team.

Jim Green, the director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, commented about the mission, “The New Horizons mission has taken what we thought we knew about Pluto and turned it upside down.”

Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, called Pluto the new “star of the solar system,” adding, “It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week.”

Even further, the sheer magnitude of data available for analysis have stunned scientists. Stern stated, “I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”

“It’s why we explore – to satisfy our innate curiosity and answer deeper questions about how we got here and what lies beyond the next horizon,” said Jim Green.





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