If NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is correct, there may well be two icy volcanoes lying just beneath the surface of the (former) planet Pluto.
NASA explains the cryovolcano
The seven instrument payload launched aboard the New Horizons spacecraft in 2006 may have just found a couple of volcanoes under the surface of Pluto’s south pole during its flyby this summer. Images, obviously, take a bit of time to reach NASA from that distance and analysis takes time as well.
Scientists have named the two circular(ish) mountains with depressions in each of their centers: Write Mons has a subterranean height of somewhere between 3-5 kilometers, while Piccard Mons could be as much as 6,000 meters in height. From the pictures they look similar to the cryovolcanoes on Neptune’s moon Triton and others. Cryovolcanoes erupt with ice flows rather than lava.
“We’re not yet ready to announce we have found volcanic constructs at Pluto, but these sure look suspicious, and we’re looking at them very closely,” says Jeff Moore, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who heads the New Horizons
geology team. Moore had that to say in a speech to the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences Monday in National Harbor, Maryland.
According to Robert Pappalardo, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the ice detected on the surface of each peak would be able to flow on and beneath the surface of the two potential volcanoes.
Pluto’s geological activity is certainly such that cryovolcanoes could surely exist. With towering mountains and icy plains on the surface of a dwarf planet (with a heat source at its core) would make for the possibility.
“These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing — a volcano,” said Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif, at the meeting. “If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath.” White also highlighted the “strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks,”
Scientists do, however, question whether Pluto has a strong enough heat source to send slush from Pluto’s subsurface erupting above the crust of the former planet.
The successes of the New Horizons mission
While many will question the wisdom of deep space explorations by NASA given the cost and the nation’s present debt levels as well as deficit spending. That’s all well and good but it should be pointed out that the budget for the New Horizons spacecraft was approved well before a debt of however many trillion engulfed the nation’s political parties to justify or look to shut down NASA’s spending.
The fact is, it worked. Four months ago and nine years from launch, the New Horizons spacecraft has done its job. Even if that job is, seemingly, to show members of the team how wrong they were.
“It’s been four months past the flyby, and we can tell you that New Horizons gets an ‘A’ for exploration,” said New Horizons
project leader Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute on Monday in Maryland. “But I also think we get a couple ‘Fs’, and one of those is for predictability–Pluto is baffling us.” New Horizons has given scientists lots to analyze, but that’s what they were hired to do nearly a decade ago.