Twirling moons and ice volcanoes: NASA's New Horizons reveals surprising discoveries on Pluto!

From possible ice volcanoes to twirling moons, scientists' view of Pluto seems to be evolving with every step.

By Udita Madan | Updated: Nov 10, 2015, 09:34 AM IST
Twirling moons and ice volcanoes: NASA's New Horizons reveals surprising discoveries on Pluto!
Image courtesy: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Zee Media Bureau/Udita Madan

Known as the smallest and coldest planet in our solar system, Pluto came into focus in July, through NASA's New Horizons' Pluto flyby.

Now, four months later, NASA’s New Horizons science team is discussing more than 50 exciting discoveries about Pluto at this week’s 47th Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in National Harbor, Maryland.

From possible ice volcanoes to twirling moons, scientists' view of Pluto seems to be evolving with every step.

Data from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft presented on Monday, suggests that Pluto might be dotted with volcanoes spewing ice and powered by the radioactive decay of elements within the dwarf planet.

ALSO READ: New Horizons sends images of Pluto's tiny moon Kerberos

Combining images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D maps, NASA scientists have indicated that two of Pluto’s most distinctive mountains could be cryovolcanoes -- ice volcanoes that may have been active in the recent geological past.

(Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-JHU/SWRI)

This revelation comes as a huge surprise, because, Earth has a thick atmosphere with lots of weather, a hot interior, and oceans. Pluto has none of those things.

One icy peak, informally named Wright Mons, stands about two miles high. The other, Piccard Mons, is 3.5 miles high. Both are about 100 miles wide and have definite depressions at their tops. According to the team, the formations look a lot like shield volcanoes, akin to the Hawaiian island chain on Earth and Olympus Mons on Mars.

NASA reported Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, saying, “These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing -- a volcano. 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, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don't yet know.”

NASA went on to say that, 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. If Pluto proves to have volcanoes, it will provide an important new clue to its geologic and atmospheric evolution.

ALSO READ: NASA's New Horizons returns full view of Pluto's stunning crescent

Meanwhile, the New Horizons mission also is shedding new light on Pluto’s fascinating system of moons, and their unusual properties. For example, nearly every other moon in the solar system -- including Earth’s moon -- is in synchronous rotation, keeping one face toward the planet. This is not the case for Pluto’s small moons.

According to NASA, Pluto’s small lunar satellites are spinning much faster, with Hydra -- its most distant moon -- rotating an unprecedented 89 times during a single lap around the planet. Scientists believe these spin rates may be variable because Charon exerts a strong torque that prevents each small moon from settling down into synchronous rotation.

Watch the video here:

(Video courtesy: NASA/YouTube)