Pluto has 'Earth-like characteristics,' study says

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A scientific team headed by British researchers published the findings yesterday in the journal Science.

A mountain range on the edge of Pluto's Sputnik Planitia ice plain - with dune formations clearly visible in the bottom half of the picture - is shown in this handout image taken during the July 2015 New Horizons mission.

Pluto's heart-shaped Sputnik Planitia. Since the announcement of Pluto's discovery, the body has been a subject of much speculation: even from the very start, its designation as a planet was a matter of controversy.

Where Sputnik Planitia approaches mountains of ice, its surface ripples. Sastrugi - parallel wave-like ridges caused by winds on a hard snow surface; barchan - crescent mounds that tend to be wider than they are long; and seif - linear dunes with two slip faces, are just three of the very different types of dune that are found on Earth. "It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around -230 degrees Celsius, we still get dunes forming".

Prof Hayes says we now know Pluto to be "a geologically diverse and dynamic world driven by internal heat, extreme seasons and sublimating ices".

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Dune systems appear to be common throughout the solar system.

Pluto's surface is mostly nitrogen, which is solid at the average temperature of around -230°C. These dunes could also contain frozen nitrogen.

Comparing to Earth, Pluto has lower surface pressure up to 100k times and scientists consider it to be the main factor for the gathering of solid methane.

These are then transported by Pluto's moderate winds (which can reach between 30 and 40 kmh), with the border of the ice plain and mountain range providing the flawless location for such regular surface formations to appear.

This is a significant discovery, because dunes are only produced when specific conditions occur, and recognition of these conditions on Pluto suggests that the minor planet might be much more active than previously envisaged.

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"On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to release sand particles into the air, but winds that are 20% weaker are then sufficient to maintain transport", said co-author Dr. Eric Parteli, from the Department of Geosciences at the University of Cologne. And the dunes are likely young as well; the study team believes they formed within the past 500,000 years or so. "The considerably lower gravity of Pluto, and the extremely low atmospheric pressure, means the winds needed to maintain sediment transport can be a hundred times lower".

Pluto, smaller than Earth's moon with a diameter of about 1,400 miles (2,380 km), orbits roughly 3.6 billion miles (5.8 billion km) away from the sun, nearly 40 times farther than Earth's orbit, with a surface marked by plains, mountains, craters and valleys.

This is the sixth place in the solar system where scientists have found dunes. This showed researchers that the dunes were most likely the result of tiny grains of methane, as Phys.org reports.

It's now heading towards an object in the Kuiper Belt nicknamed Ultima Thule, about 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto, on January 1.

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