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article imageEssential Science: Methane ice dunes found on Pluto

By Tim Sandle     Jun 4, 2018 in Science
Houston - Methane ice dunes have been detected on the surface of Pluto, by NASA spacecraft. The structures offer a new insight into the dwarf planet and with the differences in planetary structures within our solar system.
The new findings point to evidence of dunes of frozen methane on Pluto. The news of interest since it indicates that the distant dwarf planet has a far more dynamic planetary ecosystem than previously thought. Prior to the finding, it had been thought that Pluto's atmosphere (mainly nitrogen with minor amounts of methane and carbon monoxide) was far too thin to be able to shape, through the presence of wind, the types of features common to deserts on Earth. The findings into the methane dunes therefore came as a surprise to NASA researchers.
New Horizons NASA spacecraft
New Horizons NASA spacecraft
NASA
The data comes from NASA's New Horizons mission, which flew close to Pluto in July 2015. The data from this mission continues to be analysed. The space probe sped past Pluto at a rate of 58,536 kilometers per hour (36,373 miles per hour), collecting valuable data as moved further out into space.
New Horizons
New Horizons is an interplanetary space probe that was launched as a part of NASA's New Frontiers program. The main mission to perform a flyby study of the Pluto, followed by a secondary mission to fly close to and study other Kuiper belt objects. In doing so the craft became the fifth artificial object to leave the Solar System.
Pluto
CLOSEUP: The dwarf planet Pluto as photographed by the LORRI and Ralph instruments aboard the New Ho...
CLOSEUP: The dwarf planet Pluto as photographed by the LORRI and Ralph instruments aboard the New Horizons spacecraft on July 13.
NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI/Wikimedia Commons
Pluto (or '134340 Pluto') is a dwarf planet located in the Kuiper belt, which refs to the ring of bodies beyond Neptune. It was the first Kuiper belt object to be discovered, originally classified as a planet and then downgraded to dwarf planet status. Pluto is primarily made of ice and rock and is relatively small—about one-sixth the mass of the Moon. However, the object continues to fascinate scientists interested in the origins of the Solar System.
New insights into Pluto
The New Horizons data into Pluto relates to a plain in the surface called Sputnik Planitia. Earlier image shad suggested that parts of the plain are covered with fields of dunes. These are, as the new data reveals, dues of methane located close to a range of mountains composed of water ice, which stand 5 kilometers tall.
The newly detected methane dunes a situated between 0.4 and 1 kilometer apart, where the surface temperatures are minus 230 degrees Celsius (minus 382 Fahrenheit). The dunes appear to be composed of and that they are made up of particles of methane ice, which are some 200-300 micrometers in diameter. In other words, the methane particles are around the size of grains of sand.
The Pluto system as we know it today. Four small moons--Styx  Nix  Kerberos and Hydra  orbit the cen...
The Pluto system as we know it today. Four small moons--Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra, orbit the central "binary planet" comprising Pluto and its large, nearby moon Charon.
NASA/STScI/Showalter
According to Jani Radebaugh, a planetary scientist at Brigham Young University, speaking with The Guardian: “Pluto, even though it’s so far away from Earth and so very cold, has a riot of processes we never expected to see. It is far more interesting than any of us dreamed, and tells us that these very distant bodies are well worth visiting.”
Researchers have compared Pluto's dunes to those in California's Death Valley and China's Taklamakan desert, albeit with a very different composition. While dunes have been detected elsewhere in solar system: on Mars, Venus, and Saturn's moon Titan, Pluto's are the only dunes to be found to be composed of methane.
Pluto By Moonlight: On July 14  New Horizons mission scientists will soon obtain the first images of...
Pluto By Moonlight: On July 14, New Horizons mission scientists will soon obtain the first images of the night region of Pluto, using only the light from Charon, itself softly illuminated by a Sun 1,000 times dimmer than it is at Earth.
JHUAPL / SwRI
The findings have been published in the journal Science. The research paper succinctly is titled “Dunes on Pluto.”
Essential Science
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California almonds
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This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we outlined a new study that indicated that consuming two ounces of tree nuts per day, in place of carbohydrates, can improve blood sugar level control and blood lipids in those with type 2 diabetes.
The week before we looked at a new type of battery that can re-charge in a matter of seconds and looks set to revolutionize mobile devices.
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