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article imageCould there be life on the amazing and mysterious Pluto?

By Stephen Morgan     Aug 1, 2015 in Science
The data coming in from the New Horizons spacecraft's mission to Pluto proves that the Universe is, if nothing else, full of surprises.
Up until now, our image of the far off planet has been one of a tiny dark, lifeless rock, barely worth investigating. But, with only 5% of the eventual data yet received, the next 16 months' worth of information could yield many more startling things than those which already have left scientists astounded, excited and somewhat bemused.
Described as “wonders” by the leader of the mission, the discoveries have been so unprecedented that top scientists are quoted as saying things like;
“I screamed,” “We were amazed,” “No one dared imagine,” “My jaw was on the ground,” “It just blew our socks off.”
Moreover, the findings are so unusual that scientists can't fully explain many of the phenomena they have come across, and, although no one is stressing the possibility of life on Pluto, it can't be entirely ruled out.
As New Horizons has gradually got closer to the small planet, scientists have been bombarded by images which unexpectedly suggest the existence of such things as polar ice caps and huge, Earth-like glaciers made up of nitrogen and carbon monoxide ice.
They have also found 11,000ft (3,350m) water ice mountains, massive, flat, smooth planes, without much evidence of asteroid craters, and possibly a huge underground ocean, which may be vented by geysers and cryovolcanoes, says Scitech Daily.
Furthermore, Pluto has a methane gas atmosphere and the planet is enveloped by two layers of haze, one reaching 80 miles (130kms) above the surface and another 50 miles (80kms) above. It may also experience weather systems, which could include nitrogen snowstorms.
New Horizons NASA spacecraft
New Horizons NASA spacecraft
NASA
Scientists simply can't account for many of these things. For example, they don't know why and how the gigantic mountains of ice were formed and what is causing the glaciers to move in a way similar to those on Earth. They also don't know exactly why Pluto is losing its atmosphere at a rapid rate within the 80 mile haze zone, and they are baffled by the strange, dark spots around the planet's equator.
With regard to why the haze has been reduced by 50% lately, Scitech Daily says that one possibility mentioned by Michael Summers — a New Horizons scientist at George Mason University — is
“That when methane gas in the atmosphere is exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun, it transforms into heavier hydrocarbon gasses that fall to lower, colder parts of Pluto’s atmosphere and form ice particles.”
As for the movement of the glaciers, Science news.org says that one explanation is, “heating from radioactive elements such as uranium buried deep in a rocky core,” or the existence of a yet undiscovered underground ocean, which regularly freezes up, releasing energy up to the surface.
Referring to the dark spots around the center of the planet, Phys.org quotes Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator as saying, "It's a real puzzle-we don't know what the spots are."
The spots appear to be circles whose edges aren't sharp but irregular. But, at the same time, they are strangely situated at regular intervals. Curt Niebur, a mission's program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington commented that, “It's weird that they're spaced so regularly." Yet no reason has found for why this is so.
As for life existing, as we know it, that wouldn't be possible on Pluto's surface, where temperatures fall as low as -240 °C (-400 °F). But this doesn't mean that life could have flourished or still does flourish below its surface in an underground sea.
The Express also reports that, despite the unexpected lack of asteroid craters, there is evidence of one major impact crater and the outlines of an “eroded” comet or asteroid situated in Pluto's southern hemisphere. The fact that it is eroded could point to geological activity, such as earthquakes and volcanoes, which would indicate a warmer inner liquid core, where microorganisms might be able to exist.
Furthermore, David Grinspoon. a NASA scientist in the New Horizons Center, has suggested that the aforementioned dark patches, could point towards a radioactive surface, which could result in ice melting into water between the planet's surface and its core.
"The dark material is likely to be irradiated organics mixed into ices, but we will know much more soon when we get infrared spectra of these materials, which should tell us what they are made out of," he said.
Michael Summers also seemed to make a link between the haze and possibility of the building blocs of life when he explained that in the atmosphere;
“The (ice) particles form a haze, which, when exposed to ultraviolet light yet again, are turned into red organic molecules that fall to the ground, forming the dwarf planet’s dark patches. “We think this is how Pluto’s surface got its reddish hue.”
Although life looks unlikely at this stage, nearly everything discovered about Pluto so far has been totally unexpected. At the very least, there are definite similarities between Pluto and some of Saturn's and Jupiter's moons, which are thought to have underground seas that could harbor life.
It all begs the questions that, if we see such surprising things on our doorstep — or at least, “the bottom of our garden,” when talking about Pluto — what other mind-blowing discoveries await us in our exploration of space?
New Horizons will now quit Pluto and fly deeper into the Kuiper Belt — the furthest frontier of our Solar System that separates us from the wider universe. The Belt is made up of a ring of debris and asteroids left over from the formation of our Solar System, and is considered to be home to the comets which regularly buzz past our planets.
So many more interesting things are coming.
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