Cool image time! Scientists reviewing images taken by New Horizons when it flew past Pluto in 2015 have discovered what appear to be dunes of methane on the icepack of nitrogen of Sputnik Planitia. The image on the right, cropped to post here, shows these dunes. You can see the full image if you click on it.
Following spatial analysis of the dunes and nearby wind streaks on the planet’s surface, as well as spectral and numerical modelling, scientists believe that sublimation (which converts solid nitrogen directly into a gas) results in sand-sized grains of methane being released into the environment.
These are then transported by Pluto’s moderate winds (which can reach between 30 and 40 kmh), with the border of the ice plain and mountain range providing the perfect location for such regular surface formations to appear.
The scientists also believe the undisturbed morphology of the dunes and their relationship with the underlying glacial ice suggests the features are likely to have been formed within the last 500,000 years, and possibly much more recently.
There remains a lot of uncertainty here. The features do look like dunes in the image, but it is also possible that other phenomenon not yet understood could have caused this pattern on the icepack surface. Also, the resolution of the image is not sufficient to really see detail at this level. A different process on the surface could be fooling our eyes.
Nonetheless, the scientists hypothesis makes sense, and fits the data known. It also demonstrates again that, even billions of miles from the Sun, in as alien an environment we can imagine, the planet Pluto is an active and complex place.
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