Elevation map of Wright Mons on Pluto
The uncertainty of science: According to new research published yesterday, scientists now posit that there might be recent volcanic activity on Pluto, based on data and images sent back by New Horizons during its fly-by of the planet in 2015.
You can read the paper here. From its abstract:
The New Horizons spacecraft returned images and compositional data showing that terrains on Pluto span a variety of ages, ranging from relatively ancient, heavily cratered areas to very young surfaces with few-to-no impact craters. One of the regions with very few impact craters is dominated by enormous rises with hummocky flanks. Similar features do not exist anywhere else in the imaged solar system. Here we analyze the geomorphology and composition of the features and conclude this region was resurfaced by cryovolcanic processes, of a type and scale so far unique to Pluto. Creation of this terrain requires multiple eruption sites and a large volume of material (>104 km3) to form what we propose are multiple, several-km-high domes, some of which merge to form more complex planforms. The existence of these massive features suggests Pluto’s interior structure and evolution allows for either enhanced retention of heat or more heat overall than was anticipated before New Horizons, which permitted mobilization of water-ice-rich materials late in Pluto’s history. [emphasis mine]
The image to above is Figure 10 in the paper’s supplementary material [pdf]. It shows the volcano-like appearance of Wright Mons on Pluto, a mound approximately 3,000 feet high with a central depression equally deep, with a volume “similar in magnitude to that of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa.”
These conclusions are quite tantalizing, but the amount of data is sparse, and thus it is wise not to take them too seriously. For example, the scientists have no idea how Pluto could presently have any form of liquid or active volcanism. Another mission to Pluto — studying it over a long time from orbit — will be required to determine how active the planet really is, or if it is active at all.
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