Pluto may be home to ice volcanoes, NASA says

Pluto may be home to ice volcanoes, according to NASA, which has released a wealth of information from its flyby of the dwarf planet earlier this year.

The New Horizons spacecraft made its historic Pluto flyby in July after an epic journey of 3 billion miles that lasted more than 9 years.

“The New Horizons mission has taken what we thought we knew about Pluto and turned it upside down,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement released Monday. “It's why we explore -- to satisfy our innate curiosity and answer deeper questions about how we got here and what lies beyond the next horizon."

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NASA, which is discussing a slew of Pluto discoveries at the 47th Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in National Harbor, Md. this week, highlighted the ‘cryovolcanoes’ as a key finding.

Geologists on the New Horizons team combined images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D maps that indicate two of Pluto’s most distinctive mountains could be ice volcanoes. In its statement NASA explained that the ‘cryovolcanoes’ may even have been active in the recent past. The two candidates are large features on the dwarf planet’s surface measuring tens of miles across and several miles high.

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“These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing -- a volcano,” said Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif, in the statement. “If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath.” White also highlighted the “strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks,” which may represent volcanic flows that have traveled down from the summit region.

Although resembling their counterparts on Earth, Pluto’s ice volcanoes are expected to emit a “melted slurry of substances” such as water, ice, nitrogen, ammonia, or methane, according to NASA.

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The space agency said that if Pluto is indeed found to have volcanoes, it could provide important clues to how the dwarf planet’s geology evolved.

The New Horizons spacecraft also discovered that Pluto’s surface varies in age – from ancient, to intermediate, to relatively young, according to information released this week. “Crater counts of surface areas on Pluto indicate that it has surface regions dating to just after the formation of the planets of our solar system, about four billion years ago,” said NASA, in its statement.

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Scientists have also identified a vast, relatively crater-free, area, dubbed Sputnik Planum, that may have formed within the past 10 million years.

In September NASA released images showing Pluto's stunning range of surface features, from heavily cratered terrain to icy plains.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons passed by Jupiter in 2007 on its journey to Pluto. The fastest spacecraft ever, the probe traveled at 30,000 mph on its epic trip.