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After Earth And Mars, Pluto Shows The Presence Of Dune Formation

After Earth And Mars, Pluto Shows The Presence Of Dune Formation

Now, a new study suggests that these formations are actually dunes made out of methane "sand", which is striking considering the dwarf planet's extremely thin atmosphere.

The new findings from scientists working on NASA's New Horizons mission and ESA's Rosetta spacecraft are another twist in the tale of this distant body, once called a planet, then demoted to dwarf planet, and now being dubbed by some a "supercomet". "This is one of the windiest spots on Pluto", Telfer said, "and the winds are in exactly the right direction".

"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", said Dr. Jani Radebaugh, Associate Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at Brigham Young University. This lower surface pressure of the Pluto's atmosphere enables the solid methane grains to mobilize in the atmosphere and become airborne.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons was the first spacecraft ever to visit Pluto, passing within 7,770 miles (12,500 kilometers).

Pluto got taken off the list of the solar system's planets a few years ago, but that does not make it any less of an interesting body for astronomers to study. In 2014 and 2015 ESA's Rosetta followed the comet around the Sun and witnessed active jets of material flying from its surface. The recent study of results from New Horizons indicates that there is a field of dunes at the edge of Pluto's largest plain, Sputnik Planitia. The driving force of this process may be the heating of the atmosphere by the Sun, which raises the temperature above minus 230 degrees Celsius, that is the freezing point of nitrogen.

Modeling by the team shows that Pluto's moderate winds (which can reach between 19 and 25 miles per hour, or 30-40 kmh) can create these dunes once the grains are airborne.

Researchers said the dunes appear to be made mostly of icy specks of methane the size of sand, with some frozen nitrogen likely mixed in. According to Eric Parteli, such dunes formation on the Earth requires sand and stronger winds.

'So it would feel lighter in your hand, but it would still be granular and would kind of flow off of your hand, and your feet would kind of crunch them as you're walking along.

While the mysterious dunes on Pluto may look like sand dunes, they are really formed out of tiny particles of methane.

"'Much work is left to do to understand dunes on Pluto", wrote Cornell University's Alexander Hayes wrote in a companion article. This section of the plateau is about 47 miles (75 kilometers) wide and meets up with the Al-Idrisi Montes mountain range. Sastrugi - parallel wave-like ridges caused by winds on a hard snow surface; barchan - crescent mounds that tend to be wider than they are long; and seif - linear dunes with two slip faces, are just three of the very different types of dune that are found on Earth.

The team has yet to determine the height of the dunes; Mr Telfer guesses they're at least tens of metres tall. They believe that these will reveal the role of wind on Pluto's geology. Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute.

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