Grainy, icy 'dunes' found on Pluto

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The exciting part of the methane dunes existence is that they are formed instead of the presence of dwarf Pluto's fragile atmospheric layer. "No one knew what to expect from its surface and most scientists shied away from detailed speculation, except to say that the one thing we should expect is to be surprised".

"These are not just balls of ice far out in space", he said, adding that frozen worlds on the fringes of our solar system, like the dwarf planet Pluto, might have been active early on.

"We have been focusing on what's close to us, but there's a wealth of information in the distant reaches of the solar system too", said Dr. Jani Radebaugh, Associate Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at Brigham Young University. To Telfer and other planetary scientists, those ripples looked like windswept sand - a bit of a puzzle, because scientists weren't sure if Pluto's thin atmosphere could muster enough wind for sweeping.

The research is yet another moment to reflect on just how surprisingly diverse Pluto has been revealed to be.

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This Pluto mosaic was made from New Horizons LORRI images taken on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 49,700 miles (80,000 km).

Combining an analysis of wind streak and dune-like features with spectral and numerical modeling, the scientists determined what might be the underlying architect of dunes on Pluto.

These plains in the left lobe of Pluto's "heart" are known as Sputnik Planitia.

"It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around minus 382 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 230 degrees Celsius), we still get dunes forming". It also found that they were created by moderate winds of around 19 to 25 miles per hour (30 to 40 kilometers per hour). The grains that form the dunes are most likely tiny particles of frozen methane that come from that nearby Al-Idrisi Montes mountain range. They now plan to carry on investigating the dunes through computer simulations, which will in turn further enlighten them about how Pluto's winds shaped its geography.

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"The New Horizons data has given us a new level of detail, but we had to work hard to explain how it was possible to get the supply of sediment, a non-cohesive surface and wind you need for dunes". We see mountains, glaciers, and ice moving. "So it would feel lighter in your hand, but it would still be granular and would kind of flow off of your hand, and your feet would kind of crunch them as you're walking along".

Dunes made out of solid methane particles have been discovered on Pluto.

Dunes are formed when the wind blows grains of sand into a sheltered area, where it accumulates over time and develops into an increasingly larger mound.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons was the first spacecraft ever to visit Pluto, passing within 7,770 miles (12,500 kilometers). If this is true, the dunes have to be more recent than the action of this convection otherwise they'd be churned apart by it. Telfer guesses they are at least tens of metres tall. It's expected to zip past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule - orbiting 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto - on January 1.

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