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Using data sent back by New Horizons during its fly-by of Pluto scientists now think they have identified land forms created by past nitrogen ice glaciers.
The washboard and fluted terrain … occur at the location on Sputnik Planitia’s perimeter where elevations and slopes leading into the surrounding uplands are lowest, and also where a major tectonic system coincides with the edge of Sputnik Planitia. The low elevation of the area makes it a natural setting for past coverage by nitrogen ice glaciers, as indicated by modeling of volatile behavior on Pluto performed by Dr. Bertrand at Ames.
Through comparison of the washboard and fluted texture with parallel chains of elongated sublimation pits (depressions in the surface formed where ice turns directly into a gas) seen in southern Sputnik Planitia, the ridges are interpreted to represent water ice debris liberated by tectonism of underlying crust. This water ice debris was buoyant in the denser, pitted glacial nitrogen ice that is interpreted to have formerly covered this area, and collected on the floors of the elongated pits. After the nitrogen ice receded via sublimation, the debris was left as the aligned ridges, mimicking the sublimation texture – washboard ridges where deposited on flat terrain, and fluted ridges where deposited on steeper slopes.
This is strange stuff. The solid bedrock here, water ice, will float on the nitrogen ice sitting on top of it. Thus, the material that wants to sublimate away, nitrogen, sometimes has to fight its way past the water ice that has risen to the top of the pile.
To put it mildly, we hardly understand these alien processes. This research is merely a first stab, the first hand-waving.