Magazine article Science News

Pluto Continues to Deliver Surprises: Spinning Moons, Possible Ice Volcanoes Found on Dwarf Planet

Magazine article Science News

Pluto Continues to Deliver Surprises: Spinning Moons, Possible Ice Volcanoes Found on Dwarf Planet

Article excerpt

At this point, the only thing unsurprising about Pluto is that it continues to offer up surprises.

A wide variety of landscapes, ongoing surface transformations and a family of wildly spinning moons were among the curiosities reported by the New Horizons mission team November 9.

"Pluto is like a graduate course in planetary science," mission leader Alan Stern said at a news briefing. "It's going to take the larger planetary science community many years to digest all this."

The New Horizons spacecraft (SAI: 6/27/15, p. 16), which buzzed the dwarf planet on July 14, has so far sent back only about 20 percent of the data it acquired from the Pluto system. Every new nugget continues a story that's pretty familiar by now: Pluto is weird.

Terrains both new and old sit side-by-side on Pluto's surface. Some heavily cratered regions are about 4 billion years old, about as old as Pluto itself. Others appear to have been laid down in the last 10 million years, judging by the lack of craters.

Dramatic landscapes are coming into focus as images streaming in over the last couple of months have let researchers create topographical maps. One 320-kilometer-long crack informally dubbed Virgil Fossa features walls roughly 4 kilometers high, about twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.

Two mountains look strangely similar to shield volcanoes on Earth. But on Pluto, the volcanoes would spew ice. "There's nothing like this seen in the outer solar system," says planetary scientist Oliver White of NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. The mountains aren't definitely volcanoes, but scientists aren't sure what else to call them.

Pluto's atmosphere is much colder and more compact than researchers thought, which implies that it's escaping into space at a much lower rate than predicted. …

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