Something warm inside Pluto caused huge ice volcanoes

An "extremely significant" discovery, this could reshape our grasp of Pluto forever.
Brad Bergan

Pluto might be hiding something warm.

Scientists have discovered a pattern of bizarre, lumpy terrain on Pluto that doesn't resemble anything ever seen in our solar system, and it points to recent volcanic activity — but not the kind you think.

On Tuesday, scientists revealed they had detected evidence of ice volcanoes erupting on Pluto, as recent as 100 million years ago (or even more recently), according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications.

This could change everything we know about Pluto, and outlying planets throughout the universe.

Pluto's ice volcanoes "could be as young as a few hundred million years or even younger"

The discovery on the dwarf planet was made using images snapped by NASA's unspeakably fast New Horizons spacecraft, which did a flyby of Pluto in 2015 — the first human mission to reach it. But the new findings suggest that the dwarf planet's interior was much warmer, much more recently than earlier thought.

Instead of spewing piping hot magma into the air, ice volcanoes merely ooze a "thicker, slushy icy-water mix or even possibly a solid flow like glaciers," said Kelsi Singer, a planetary scientist of Colorado's Southwest Research Institute and study author, in a press release.

Of course, scientists suspected that ice volcanoes were somewhere out there, perhaps on chilly moons in our own solar system. But the ones on Pluto "look so different from anything else we ever have seen," added Singer in an AFP report.

"The features on Pluto are the only vast field of very large icy volcanoes and they have a unique texture of undulating terrain," added Singer. She emphasized that while it was hard to identify the precise time in the dwarf planet's past when these ice volcanoes came into being, her team believes "they could be as young as a few hundred million years or even younger."

NASA Pluto Surface
A revealing view of Pluto's icy volcanic region. Source: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Isaac Herrera/Kelsi Singer

Pluto: the dwarf planet that keeps giving

This area of Pluto is vastly different than the rest of the planet, which is generally smothered in impact craters. Not this region, which means "you cannot rule out that it is still in the process of forming even today," added Singer.

That Pluto, a tiny dwarf planet 3.7 billion miles from the sun has experienced gigantic ice volcanoes as recently as 100 million years ago (or even more recently), compounded by the suspicion that this might still be happening, is "extremely significant," according to Lynnae Quick, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who specializes in ice volcanoes, in the release.

"They suggest that a small body like Pluto, which should have lost much of its internal heat long ago, was able to hold onto enough energy to facilitate widespread geological activity rather late in its history," added Quick, in the AFP report.

"These findings will cause us to re-evaluate the possibilities for the maintenance of liquid water on small, icy worlds that are far from the Sun." And, hauntingly, "we don't know what could provide the heat necessary to have caused these icy volcanoes to erupt," said Professor David Rothery of planetary geoscience of The Open University, in the release. This is just the latest discovery about Pluto made in the wake of NASA's nuclear-powered New Horizons spacecraft — and, despite already transforming our understanding of the dwarf planet, it won't be the last groundbreaking find on our tiny solar neighbor.

SHOW COMMENT (1)