Mystery Solved: Gas ‘Insulation’ Keeps Pluto’s Ocean Liquid

(NASA/New Horizons)

(CN) – Despite orbiting the sun at an average distance of 3.6 billion miles, Pluto’s subsurface oceans haven’t frozen over, a phenomenon researchers said they’ve solved in a study released Monday.

A study published in scientific journal Nature Geoscience found that the oceans on the dwarf planet Pluto, which are trapped underneath an icy shell, are being insulated by a layer of gas hydrates. This layer of gas hydrates acts as a chemical barrier between the ice shell and the underlying ocean, preventing the oceans from freezing over.

The NASA spacecraft New Horizons in 2015 first observed the possibility of an ocean sealed beneath the icy surface. Scientists have since been puzzled over how the ocean remains unfrozen despite its coat of ice. This is because the kinds of temperatures needed to prevent the freezing of the ocean are believed to be far too high to sustain the varying thickness of the icy layer.

Shunichi Kamata, associate professor of planetary science at Hokkaido University and lead author of the study, seeks to answer this riddle.

Kamata said that as “we investigate Pluto in detail, more and more mysteries are found. For example, why the ocean is not frozen.” The findings of Kamata and the research team behind the study offer a “single idea, a deep thin gas hydrate layer,” that “solves these mysteries.”

Researchers find that this layer of gas hydrates is most likely made up of methane, potentially produced by the cracking or breakdown of organic compounds in Pluto’s core. The gas creating this layer could as well have come from other precursor bodies that impacted the chemical makeup of Pluto and its atmosphere.

The study also suggests that this research can increase our understanding of other planetary bodies. The celestial bodies of Europa and Enceladus, for instance, are both gaseous giants that are believed to have oceans trapped under layers of ice similar to those found on Pluto.

Kamata believes that this research could potentially offer new perspectives on these bodies and how they operate within our solar system. 

“It may be sad if I say that Pluto is no longer a mysterious body, but what is important is that the exploration of Pluto provides us new insights for icy ocean worlds,” Kamata said.

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