New research from scientists at the University of California and MIT shows there’s an ocean of slushy liquid similar to antifreeze below the surface of Pluto.
Scientists used data from NASA’s New Horizons to conclude the liquid ocean is probably water mixed with ammonia, which is similar to some commercial antifreeze. The liquid helps keep Pluto relatively warm.
“As far as we can tell, there’s no tidal heating helping to keep the ocean liquid,” Dr. Francis Nimmo, a scientist from the University of California at Santa Cruz who was involved in the research, told Universe Today. “The main heat source keeping the ocean liquid is radioactive decay in Pluto’s rocky interior, although it certainly helps if there is an ‘antifreeze’ present.”
This research could potentially resolve longstanding scientific debates about the nature of any potential ocean on Pluto. It also helps solve part of Pluto’s unusual orbital relationship with its moon Charon.
“[W]e calculated Pluto’s size with its interior heat flow, and found that underneath Sputnik Planitia, at those temperatures and pressures, you could have a zone of water-ice that could be at least viscous,” Dr. Richard Binzel, a professor from MIT who co-authored the research, noted. “It’s not a liquid, flowing ocean, but maybe slushy. And we found this explanation was the only way to put the puzzle together that seems to make any sense.”
Other research recently used computer models of Pluto’s temperatures to determine that if the dwarf planet’s ocean froze millions or billions of years ago, it would have caused the entire planet to shrink. Observations from New Horizons, however, show that Pluto is expanding. This means Pluto’s oceans probably still exist.
Pluto’s ocean is likely buried under a shell of ice more than 180 miles thick. The ice insulates the ocean enough to prevent it from totally freezing, effectively keeping the dwarf planet somewhat warm. The ocean could even be responsible for unusual geologic activity in Pluto.
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