New computer models suggest that the presence of a liquid water ocean beneath Pluto’s icy crust may be more than just some scientists’ fantasy. Researchers believe that a mysterious source of heat from the planet’s core may prevent the subsurface water from freezing.
The idea that a liquid water ocean may be hiding below the dwarf planet’s outer shell of ice first came into scientists’ focus after analyzing the data collected by the New Horizon spacecraft during its historic flyby of Pluto.
According to a new study conducted by Brown University researchers, there’s a high chance for the ocean theory to be correct. Scientists’ computer models showed that if the ocean were frozen, the dwarf planets’ thick icy crust would have turned the ice of the ocean into a ice-II type of ice which has smaller volume than liquid water.
In that scenario, the entire planet would have decreased its size and its surface wouldn’t be so neat as we see it today. Instead, Pluto’s outer layer would have looked like the wrinkled skin of an overripe peach, as one scientist put it.
But New Horizons data shows that the surface is only marked by deep cracks, which may be a sign that the subsurface ocean may be still liquid. The research team believes that radioactive elements din the planet’s core may generate enough heat to keep the water liquid.
If the study is correct, this means that other cold, distant planets across the universe may hold liquid water, which may expand the search for habitability to those worlds too. Francis Nimmo of the New Horizons team noted that habitability may be a feature even of “apparently unpromising locations.”
NASA researchers believe that Pluto’s largest moon Charon may also host a subsurface liquid water ocean. But scientists cautioned that these alien oceans are nothing like the oceans on The Blue Planet. Plus, because Pluto’s ocean is buried under dozens of feet of ice, its composition should be very different from our oceans’, researchers think.
Nadine Barlow of the at Northern Arizona University explained that Pluto’s ocean may contain methane and CO2 ices alongside water ice. Additionally, it should also have an extremely high content of dissolved salts and ammonia that prevent it from going solid, Barlow added.
The new study was published this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
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