If you take a look at this photo without knowing the source of it, you’ll say it’s an image of a beach with sand dunes. And you’re almost right. These dunes are on Pluto and were spotted by the NASA New Horizons spacecraft when it flew by in 2015.
A team of British scientists saw that the pale ridges are made of methane and that they are the size of sand. These dunes could also contain frozen nitrogen.
The dunes were found in a region on Pluto (called Sputnik Planitia) that has the shape of a heart. There are frosty methane mountains as tall as the Alps, and at their base, the ridges of sands appeared.
Matt Telfer of Plymouth University in England, published the team’s findings in the journal Science, explaining that:
‘Pretty much nowhere else we know of is cold enough.’
Scientists were impressed to find dunes on Pluto because it has a thin atmosphere. They believe that the nitrogen ice coating at the surface of the heart-shaped region transformed into gas and then methane particles lifted into the air, later being carried by the winds.
So far, scientists have found dunes on Mars, Venus, Titan (Saturn’s moon) and on a comet. however, Pluto’s dunes are the only ones that are made from methane.
Matt Telfer explained that the dunes on Pluto are like the ones at White Sands, New Mexico or the sands in California’s Death Valley. Jani Radebaugh is the co-author of the study, adding that:
‘It’s a little bit lower density than sand we’re used to holding on the Earth. 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. It would just kind of feel a lot like you’re on another sand dune on the Earth.’
At the moment, the team also want to find out more about the dunes. They believe they’re more than tens of meters tall. Alexander Hayes (Cornell University) wrote in an article on the study that researchers will have to find out “how high the dunes are, when they are most active, whether they change’ and whether particles can be swept into dunes without rising into the air.”
Rex Austinwas born and raised in Thunder Bay Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior. Apart from running his own podcast (Ice Fishing And Other “Cool” Things), he spends his time canoeing and backpacking in Northern Ontario.. As a journalist Rex has published stories for Global News (Thunder Bay) we well as Buzz Feed and Joystiq. As a contributor to Great Lakes Ledger, Rex most covers science and health stories. Contact Rexhere