Uncovering the mystery of nitrogen ice dynamics on Pluto

(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists have uncovered a fascinating new insight into how the landscape of the dwarf planet Pluto formed.

A team of international researchers, including Dr. Adrienne Morison of the University of Exeter, has shown how huge ice formations formed in one of the planet’s largest craters, Sputnik Planitia.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Pluto’s surface, Sputnik Planitia, is an impact crater made up of a bright plain slightly larger than France and filled with nitrogen ice.

For the new study, scientists used sophisticated modeling techniques to show that these polygonal ice forms are formed by the sublimation of ice, a phenomenon in which solid ice can turn into a gas without becoming a liquid state.

The research team shows that this sublimation of nitrogen ice enhances convection in the Sputnik Planitia ice layer by cooling its surface.

The study was published in the leading journal Nature on Wednesday December 15, 2021.

Dr Morison, a researcher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy of Exeter, said: “When the New Horizon space probe completed its only flyby of Pluto to date in 2015, the data collected was sufficient to fundamentally change our understanding of this distant world.

“In particular, he showed that Pluto is still geologically active, despite being far from the Sun and has limited internal energy sources. This is also the case for Sputnik Planitia, where surface conditions allow nitrogen gas in its atmosphere to coexist with solid nitrogen. .

“We know that the ice surface shows remarkable polygonal features – formed as a result of thermal convection in nitrogen ice, constantly organizing and renewing the surface of the ice. However, questions remained about how exactly this process could have happened. ”

In the new study, a team of scientists ran a series of numerical simulations that showed that cooling from sublimation can drive convection in a way that is consistent with abundant New Horizons data, including polygon size, terrain amplitude, and surface change rates.

This is also consistent with the timescales at which climate models predict sublimation of the Sputnik Planitia region from about 1–2 million years ago. The study found that the dynamics of this layer of nitrogen ice mirrored the dynamics found in Earth’s oceans, driven by climate.

Similar climate-driven rock dynamics can also be observed on the surfaces of other planetary bodies such as Triton (one of Neptune’s moons) or Eris and Makemake (from the Kuiper Belt).


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