Pluto Has A Liquid Subsurface Ocean

Posted: Nov 17 2016, 4:21am CST | by , in Latest Science News


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Pluto has a Liquid Subsurface Ocean
This cutaway image of Pluto shows a section through the area of Sputnik Planitia, with dark blue representing a subsurface ocean and light blue for the frozen crust. (Artwork by Pam Engebretson)
  • Pluto has a Liquid Ocean Beneath its Frozen Surface

The planet Pluto has a semi-solid ocean and it lies directly beneath its crust.

Pluto may actually have a slushy ocean beneath its heart-like area. This may be the reason why part of the heart-shaped area is in synch with the moon Charon.

The heart-like area is called Sputnik Planitia. The ocean beneath the ice crust could act as a lumbersome massive flowing sludge of sorts. It affected the planet so that it was facing the moon.

All this data comes courtesy of the New Horizons spacecraft. This probe which belongs to NASA did a flyby near the planet in July 2015. Currently, it is heading in a beeline for the Kuiper Belt. This lies beyond Neptune’s orbit.

Pluto and Charon are interlocked thanks to the pull between the slushy ocean beneath the Sputnik Planitia and Charon. A tidal axis runs between both and interconnects them. Pluto thus followed a special evolutionary course in its geological formation.

These schematic diagrams (see larger image) show how the gravity anomaly at Sputnik Planitia is affected by an uplifted ocean and the thickness of the nitrogen layer. Either a nitrogen layer more than 40 km thick (panel b) or an uplifted ocean (panel c) could result in a present-day positive gravity anomaly at Sputnik Planitia; otherwise, the gravity anomaly will be strongly negative (panel a). (Image from Nimmo et al., Nature, 2016)

The scientists say that the Sputnik Planitia formed somewhere else on the surface of Pluto and later on dragged the planet towards a different pathway. This difference in direction was by as much as 60 degrees relative to its spin.

The mystery of Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia is that it probably came into being through a collision with another heavenly body. This occurred at some point in the history of the planet. Had Sputnik Planitia been more like a hole in the ground, there would not be such extra weight in that region.

Since there obviously is, that can only mean one thing. This is that there is some massive semi-solid stuff floating about beneath its surface. This ocean beneath the region is very cold and also hypersaline. It is very different from the water on Earth or Europa.

Sputnik Planitia is apparently filled with much volatile ice. A large part of the ice is also gaseous in nature. For each revolution Pluto makes around the sun, its nitrogen stores collect in its heart-shaped region.

A lot more needs to be known regarding Pluto. The flyby mission may be followed by other such probes in the future. They will dig for clues regarding other aspects of this cold world on the edge of the solar system.

The findings of this research got published on November 16 in the journal Nature.

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/20" rel="author">Sumayah Aamir</a>
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