Pluto’s Icy Ocean May Harbor Life

Posted: Dec 4 2016, 10:19pm CST | by , Updated: Dec 4 2016, 10:24pm CST, in News | Latest Science News

 

Pluto’s Icy Ocean May Harbor Life
Credit: P.M. Schenk LPI/JHUAPL/SwRI/NASA)
 

Evidences suggest that an ocean laden with ammonia lies beneath the heart-shaped region on Pluto known as Sputnik Planitia

Ever since NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft has made a close flyby of Pluto last year, there is a growing consensus that the dwarf planet harbors a liquid ocean beneath its icy shell. The presence of subsurface ocean naturally leads to the question whether Pluto supports life on its surface.

Using computer models along with topographical and compositional data taken from July 2015 Pluto flyby, researchers offer more clues about the composition of that ocean. Previous researches suggested that Pluto’s heart-shaped region known as Sputnik Planitia contains nitrogen ice glaciers. The latest research hints that Pluto’s icy heart may harbors an ocean laden with ammonia. The presence of ammonia likely explains why the subsurface ocean on Pluto appears “slushy.”

“New Horizons has detected ammonia as a compound on Pluto’s big moon, Charon, and on one of Pluto’s small moons. So it’s almost certainly inside Pluto. What I think is down there in the ocean is rather noxious, very cold, salty and very ammonia-rich — almost a syrup,” said study author William McKinnon, professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It’s no place for germs, much less fish or squid, or any life as we know it. But as with the methane seas on Titan – Saturn’s main moon – it raises the question of whether some truly novel life forms could exist in these exotic, cold liquids.”

Pluto is an extremely distant world with a surface temperature estimated to be about 380 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. This freezing cold environment combined with ammonia could help support exotic life underneath the surface of dwarf planet.

“Life can tolerate a lot of stuff:  It can tolerate a lot of salt, extreme cold, extreme heat, etc. But I don’t think it can tolerate the amount of ammonia Pluto needs to prevent its ocean from freezing – ammonia is a superb antifreeze. Not that ammonia is all bad. On Earth, microorganisms in the soil fix nitrogen to ammonia, which is important for making DNA and proteins and such,” said McKinnon.

“If you are going to talk about life in an ocean that is completely covered with an ice shell, it seems most likely that the best you could hope for is some extremely primitive kind of organism. It might even be pre-cellular, like we think the earliest life on Earth was.”

MiKinnon says that the idea of a primitive life is just a speculation as of this moment of time. To confirm the existence of any such ocean, more orbiter missions to Pluto would be needed in the future.

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