In July 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft completed a journey to dwarf planet Pluto, capturing various images of the surface of the planet. A closer look at these images revealed a unique section of the planet. Scientists determined that this section is composed of ice volcanoes, formally known as cryovolcanoes. According to Kelsi Singer, a senior research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute located in Boulder, Colorado, the volcanoes “…look nothing like anything else we have seen in the solar system” (CNN). Rather than hot lava flowing out of them, they produce a water-ice combination, containing other substances including methane as well as ammonia. Due to the low average temperature of Pluto at -387 degrees Fahrenheit, it is possible for the water-ice substance to keep hold of its shape after flowing out of the cryovolcano, allowing craters and other shapes of icy mounds to form. These volcanoes were deemed to have been active recently, although an eruption has never been seen. Evidence reveals that they were also possibly active about 100-200 million years ago, leaving the possibility for them to continue to be active in the future.
Not only an interesting fact about a planet very far away, but the newfound information discovered about Pluto’s ice volcanoes also points to many other details about the dwarf planet. First off, scientists understand that Pluto had an ocean underneath its surface, known as a subsurface ocean. However, the discovery of the volcanoes indicates that this ocean may still be present, as the volcanoes possibly extrapolate liquid from this source. The volcanoes not only indicate the subsurface ocean, yet they also lead scientists to believe that Pluto has more heat inside of it, dealing with radioactive elements within the planet. Both of these conclusions lead scientists to raise the chances of being able to live on Pluto. While there are many factors missing from being able to sustain life as we know it, it causes more curiosity to form about what else is on Pluto that scientists may not have spotted right away.
Overall, the exciting discovery of these ice volcanoes opens up a whole new world of possibility of what else could be out there not only on Pluto but anywhere else in the magnificent solar system.
By: Mina Cocca, SNHS Member
Image Source: Google Images