During the New Horizons mission, NASA managed to take the first look at the surface of our favorite dwarf planet, Pluto. The mission revealed some peculiar formations near the planet’s equator, namely some sharp crests and blades of ice. Scientists have been wondering how these formations came into being, and they finally managed to find an answer.
Pluto’s equator features tall blades of ice
Initially, they assumed the crests were created when methane ice became eroded. There is plenty of methane in Pluto’s atmosphere and, when it got frozen, it formed sharp deposits on the surface. However, the Icarus study revealed Pluto suffered some dramatic climate changes. These extreme heat waves caused the frozen methane to turn directly into a gas through a process called sublimation.
Therefore, researchers started analyzing the phenomenon in more detail, as they wanted to find out why methane accumulated in such sharp formations instead of forming regular icy structures. The secret lay precisely in these sudden climate changes.
The weird formations are the product of sublimation
These ice formations are similar to some present on Earth near its own equator. These blades are called penitents, and are produced only during sublimation. Therefore, they are present only when ice turns directly into gas, without passing through the liquid state first. These Pluto spikes are more impressive, as they reach heights of several hundreds of feet.
Therefore, it seems the atmosphere of Pluto is way more intense than we used to think, as it exhibits a lot more activity in high altitude areas. These are the areas where the ice blades are formed and, with this information, researchers can map the rest of Pluto’s surface more easily. Judging from the location of other blades, they might tell which areas are also at a high elevation, even if they don’t appear in high resolution images.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons