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Researchers find region covered with ice volcanoes on Pluto

Some of the ice volcanoes are nearly 23,000 feet tall and could help scientists deepen their understanding of the dwarf planet’s interior structure.

(CN) — Researchers analyzed images from the New Horizons spacecraft to identify a region on Pluto where ice volcanoes relatively recently erupted and shaped the landscape.

The research, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, outlines a series of volcanic domes on the dwarf planet, some of which are nearly 23,000 feet tall and over 62 miles wide. The findings could provide insights to scientists about the interior of the dwarf planet on the outer reaches of the solar system.

“They’re giant structures,” said Kelsi Singer, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and one of the authors of the paper. “There's quite a few of them and some of them kind of merge together in a way so they make even bigger structures. And on top of these big mounds, another striking feature about them is they're really lumpy.”

Singer said the inner two-thirds of Pluto are rocky material, while the surface is predominantly ice. The geographic contours of the landscape on this area suggest material erupted from a warmer interior onto Pluto’s surface, where the temperature is nearly 390 degrees below zero.

“If you think about a lava flow on Earth, the hot rock or the melted molten rock is a lot warmer than the surface of the earth and then it slowly cools. And that's how we get rocks,” Singer said. “You can think about this somewhat similarly to that.”

The terrain of the area is also unmarred by the impact craters which speckle other regions of Pluto. This lack of impact craters indicated to researchers that the ice volcanoes — known as cryovolcanoes — formed the lumpy terrain relatively recently in Pluto’s history.

These distinctive features make the region “different than anything that we’ve seen elsewhere in the solar system,” Singer said.

The New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006 and completed its primary mission of a flyby of the Pluto system in 2015. According to Singer, researchers relished the opportunity to delve into the information collected by the spacecraft.

“That really did help us try to understand this region. At this point, I think we can pretty safely say this is probably the largest field of cryovolcanoes,” said Singer. “We haven't seen anything like this in elsewhere in the solar system. I think there's multiple eruption sites at different times that form this very, very large area full of these very large cryovolcanoes.”

The researchers also estimate that one of the largest structures on Pluto has a volume comparable to Mauna Loa in Hawaii, one of Earth’s largest volcanoes.

Though questions remain about how the materials on Pluto’s surface behave, Singer said the study suggests that there is more heat underneath the dwarf planet’s surface than previously believed. This finding could help hone the scientific understanding of Pluto’s interior.

According to Singer, one possibility raised by this study and others is that Pluto has an insulating layer like an insulating mug that does not release the heat, keeping the interior hot.

“Maybe you have heat building up because of an insulating layer and then every once in a while, there’s a fracture or a fault and you have an episodic release of the heat that could allow for episodes of volcanism,” Singer said, adding that the mysteries of Pluto will continue to intrigue scientists.

“We don’t have a lot of direct information on the interior. We’re just making connections between what we see on the surface and saying, ‘Well, these things are here and they had to get here somehow,’” said Singer.

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