Space Research

Methane dunes on Pluto – experts comment

Earlier today we covered a story about how scientists believe there are dunes on Pluto made up of small methane grains.

For the study scientists analysed detailed images of the dwarf planet’s surface, captured in July 2015 by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. Those images showed that on the boundary of the Sputnik Planitia ice plain, and pushed up against a major mountain range, there is a series of dunes spread across an area less than 75km across.

Dr. Matt Telfer, Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Plymouth, is the paper’s lead author. He said: “We knew that every solar system body with an atmosphere and a solid rocky surface has dunes on it, but we didn’t know what we’d find on Pluto. It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around -230˚C, we still get dunes forming. The New Horizons data has given us a new level of detail, but we had to work hard to explain how it was possible to get the supply of sediment, a non-cohesive surface and wind you need for dunes. It is another piece of the jigsaw in making sense of this diverse and remote body, and gives us a more fundamental understanding of the geological processes which are influencing it.”

Dr. Eric Parteli, Lecturer in Computational Geosciences at the University of Cologne, said: “On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to release sand particles into the air, but winds that are 20% weaker are then sufficient to maintain transport. The considerably lower gravity of Pluto, and the extremely low atmospheric pressure, means the winds needed to maintain sediment transport can be 50 times lower. The temperature gradients in the granular ice layer, caused by solar radiation, also play an important role in the onset of the saltation process. Put together, we have found that these combined processes can form dunes under normal, everyday wind conditions on Pluto.”

Dr. Jani Radebaugh, Associate Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at Brigham Young University, added: “When we first saw the New Horizons images, we thought instantly that these were dunes but it was really surprising because we know there is not much of an atmosphere. However despite being 30 times further away from the Sun as the Earth, it turns out Pluto still has Earth-like characteristics. We have been focusing on what’s close to us, but there’s a wealth of information in the distant reaches of the solar system too.”

About the author

Steven Anderson

Steven Anderson

Steven has over 10 years of experience in online media industry at various positions throughout the editorial cycle. Because of his interest in presenting scientific knowledge to the general public as well as providing a platform for information dissemination, Steven decided to bring together a team of like-minded individuals and started The Space News. You can find his contact details here.

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