A Closer Look At The Geography Of Pluto

Pluto is a dwarf planet with a giant personality.

The landscape of Pluto is made up of valleys and other features that bear a pretty striking resemblance to Earth. In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons mission sent a satellite past the planet and it returned some pretty epic images. We learned that Pluto also has towering mountains of ice and huge portions of the planet’s surface are covered by frozen materials such as nitrogen. What was perhaps the most interesting revelation was that Pluto has blue skies thanks to its unique atmosphere, although you won’t find oxygen in those skies, so don’t make any plans to relocate any time soon.

A more recent study has revealed that Pluto also has vast dunes, but they’re not made up of sand.  The dunes are about 47 miles wide and run along the edge of the giant nitrogen-ice plain known as Sputnik Planitia. While not made of sand, the dunes are windblown, just like similar features here on Earth. The exact makeup of the dunes isn’t known, but scientist estimate that the grains are likely made up of frozen methane, but they could also be made of frozen nitrogen particles.

The discovery was pretty surprising for Pluto, given its extremely thin air, but other such dunes have been found pretty regularly throughout our solar system. Similar features have been observed on the surface of Mars, as well as Saturn’s giant Titan moon. Studies are currently underway to determine if dunes are present on Comet67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

What makes the Pluto discovery so unique is that the planet’s atmosphere really isn’t conducive to the forming of dunes. The surface pressure is 100,000 times lower than Earth’s, so it was pretty much thought of as impossible that wind could have any influence on particles.

The New Horizons’ program is preparing to fly by another distant object known as 2014 MU69, which is just a meager 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. The dunes of Pluto will also get some more attention, according to Alexander Hayes, of Cornell University and the director of the university’s Spacecraft Planetary Imaging Facility.

“Nature tends to converge toward a set of relatively few forms and generic patterns using a variety of processes,” he wrote. “Accordingly, much work is left to do to understand dunes on Pluto. Most notably, it remains to be shown how high the dunes are, when they are most active, whether they change and whether entrainment can occur without lofting.”