According to images beamed back from NASA’s New Horizons probe, it looks as though there is a giant bite mark on Pluto.
Scientists have found the interesting formation in Pluto’s western hemisphere, according to NASA. They believe that it could be caused by sublimation, but some commentators blame the phenomenon on aliens.
Methane sublimation could be to blame for erosion
Sublimation is the technical term for when a substance turns from a solid to a gas. Seeing as the surface of the dwarf planet is made from methane ice, it is certainly within the realms of possibility that the substance is becoming a gas in the atmosphere, revealing a layer of water ice below.
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New Horizons data shows that Pluto’s upland plateaus are packed with methane. Instead of blaming the images on water-hunting aliens, scientists believe that the methane is transitioning.
As a result the plateau is eroding and revealing the plains of Piri Planitia underneath. The plains are largely crater free.
New Horizons improving our understanding of Pluto
The images were captured by New Horizons when it flew approximately 21,100 miles from Pluto, around 45 minutes before it made its closest pass on July 14 2015.
It is thought that Piri Planitia has more water ice than higher locations, indicating that a water-ice bedrock sits beneath. This would be solid and immobile due to the extremely low temperatures on the dwarf planet.
The sublimation explanation is all perfectly logical, but what if we get creative for a minute. Predictions of alien life are usually reserved for the tinfoil brigade, but serious scientists are also considering the possibility that living things exist on Pluto.
While they might not be the small green aliens that we are used to seeing in cartoons and films, there is a chance that the dwarf planet could be geologically active and support life in subterranean oceans.
“The probe showed you that there may well be a subsurface ocean on Pluto. This means if our understanding of life on Earth is even slightly correct – that you could have living things there,” said Professor Brian Cox.
Could Pluto support life?
Pluto may have an extremely harsh environment, but there are microbes that exist in the deepest oceans on Earth. The same kind of microbes could survive deep beneath the surface of the dwarf planet.
“The bedrock that makes those mountains must be made of H2O, water ice,” said Cox. “We see water ice on Pluto for the first time. We can be very sure that the water is there in great abundance.” However water alone is not enough to support life.
New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said: “And what’s coming is not just the remaining 95 percent of the data that’s still aboard the spacecraft— it’s the best datasets, the highest-resolution images and spectra, the most important atmospheric datasets, and more. It’s a treasure trove.”
Pluto has been receiving a great deal of attention from scientists. Researchers have been looking into the geological features on the dwarf planet as well as Charon, one of its moons.
Another study examines the colors and chemical compositions of the ice on the dwarf planet and Charon, while other scientists have been investigating the atmosphere on Pluto.
A fourth study has examined the moons Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra, while another reports on how Pluto modifies its space environment. New Horizons has enabled scientists to look into Pluto in far greater detail than ever before.