Some of the more perplexing features on Pluto remain unexplained
By: April Carson
When we compare the characteristics of other bodies in our Solar System to those on Earth, many apparent analogs are much closer to home. For example, Pluto's parallel ridges appear to be a near-copy of snow formations known as penitentes here on Earth. After all, a lot of geology is driven by physics, and if the same physics apply across the universe, similarly shaped features should emerge.
But there are some aspects of Pluto that confound this logic. One such feature is the "heart" on its surface, informally named Tombaugh Regio after the man who discovered Pluto. This heart-shaped area is redder than its surroundings, and appears to be rich in carbon monoxide ices.
However, there are many times when the same physics do not apply, leaving scientists scratching their heads. Last week's report included one of these instances, in which researchers discovered that all the simple explanations for why Pluto has such features were ineffective.
The unnamed feature in question is referred to as Wright Mons, a little piece of elevated ground named for the Wright Brothers. There's a comparable structure nearby known as Piccard Mons, and when photos from New Horizons were first received back, scientists compared them to cryovolcanoes. In terms of their form, both appeared to be volcanoes on Earth with an vantage point and a crater-like feature in the middle.
Due to the fact that Pluto's surface is mostly composed of ice, and because both Wright Mons and Piccard Mons are likewise composed of ice, researchers had expected that the features were formed by semi-liquid ices forced to Pluto's surface. As a result, cryovolcanoes were discovered on other cold bodies with small atmospheres, like Ceres (NASA).
However, closer analysis of the two features on Pluto showed that they have some key differences. For one, Piccard Mons is three times the size of Wright Mons, and its crater-like feature is more like a bowl shape. Additionally, there are no flows or other tell-tale signs of cryovolcanism present on Piccard Mons.
The new study, published in GSA Today, sets out to answer questions raised by the discovery of Wright Mons. The paper finds that, while the region surrounding Wright Mons may not be as simple as previously thought, cryovolcanism is still to blame. It's possible that these features aren't true analogs of volcanoes; and it's uncertain where the energy for volcanic activity could come from.
The volcano comparison fell short a little bit further inspection of Wright and Piccard Mons revealed. The craters were rather huge in relation to the mountains, suggesting that if the crater was created by the collapse of a peak, only half of the original volume would be lost. There aren't any typical signs of a crater collapsing into itself.
Deep craters extend back down to the volcano's base, which is usually much shallower. In other words, the bottom of the crater appears to be at the same elevation as the surrounding region dominated by Wright Mons. This is extremely uncommon for volcanic cones.
Another explanation is that these are impact craters. But, again, this makes little sense. For one thing, the probability of impacts striking both of the region's greatest peaks and hitting them dead center appears to be quite low. The other issue is that there are no obvious impact craters in the area.
The geologic features in the Wright Mons region are morphologically unusual and distinct from any other areas on Pluto, according to the researchers, and they "have few similarities to most terrains on other bodies in the Solar System."
The article then goes on to say that the most likely explanation is that the features are "erosion features produced by the sublimation of volatile ices." However, this doesn't explain why they are so symmetrical and why there aren't any other similar features elsewhere on Pluto.
According to research, the best hypothesis for an answer comes from a study of the terrain around the two peaks, which is rough and dotted with "hummocks." This is also true of the mountains themselves, since their flanks appear to be riddled with hummocks. As a result, scientists propose that the two "volcanoes" are actually just clusters of multiple hummocks merging in a circular pattern, giving the illusion of a volcano.
The main concern with this explanation is that it's not clear how to make a terrain like this. Despite the fact that cryovolcanism is still considered a viable hypothesis, because a thick liquid or part-melted rock might spread slowly and create this sort of lumpy terrain, the scientists remain adamant.
The issue is that the materials in the area do not appear to be appropriate for the formation of this terrain. Although nitrogen ice isn't plentiful in the region, it is soft enough that it would flow back down under gravity's pull, eliminating such a formation. There isn't much methane in the region, either.
The rest is mostly water, which is a problem because the melting temperature of water is considerably higher than those reached on Pluto's surface. Any remaining liquid water in Pluto's interior is predicted to be found near the planet's core and will not likely cause cryovolcanism at its surface. While there may have been more liquid water in the distant past, the lack of any visible craters in this area suggests that it has been modified significantly less recently.
We're left with something that looks a lot like cryovolcanism, but the known mechanisms that create them are not present anywhere else in our Solar System. The overall appearance is different from anything we've previously seen. The most likely explanation is that we're seeing the remains of some kind of ancient, and possibly extraterrestrial, civilization.
This is certainly a controversial hypothesis, but it's one that has been gaining traction in recent years. A number of scientists have proposed that Pluto may have once been home to an advanced civilization that somehow managed to harness the power of the sun. This civilization would have had access to energy sources that we can only dream of, and they may have used this power to create massive structures on the surface of Pluto.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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