WASHINGTON — Images captured by the New Horizons spacecraft in July suggest that there might be two ice volcanoes on the surface of Pluto.
Combining the images they received from the New Horizons, geologists created 3D maps of Pluto’s surface, which they later used to identify the two mountains that might be cryovolcanoes —typically known as ice volcanoes. In case they were, instead of releasing molten rock as volcanoes on Earth do, they would erupt different substances like water, nitrogen, ammonia and methane.
Scientists believe these volcanoes (if such) could have been active in the recent past, and they may represent a relevant clue when it comes to the geologic and atmospheric evolution of Pluto.
Researchers haven’t yet come to a conclusion as to what is the true nature of these mountains and whether they are volcanic or not, however, figuring out the composition of the terrain’s materials would help the development of the investigation.
“These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing: a volcano. If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have travelled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don’t yet know,” said Oliver White, a New Horizons researcher from NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
Jeffrey Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging teams, stated that this is the first time a finding like that had been sighted in the deep outer solar system.
According to New Horizons researchers, Pluto has, in fact, a long history of geologic activity. This activity is determined by the surface’s age, which is measured by the number of crater impacts received — a larger number of crater impacts may translate into an older surface.
Some of Pluto’s surface areas date back to 4 billion years ago, right after the planets on our solar system were formed, and some other are way younger, approximately from the last 10 million years. The younger surface area is nicknamed as Sputnik Planum, which is completely free of crater impacts.
There is, nonetheless, new data from crater counts that confirms the presence of middle-aged surface areas on the star, which would discard the Sputnik Planum as an anomaly and would suggest that Pluto has been geologically active since the beginning of its formation.
So far, only approximately 20% of the New Horizons recorded data has been returned to the Earth. Scientists expect to further their research once they retrieve enough information.