WHEN Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, he could not have known that he was opening a whole field of science that is only now coming into its own: the study of planetary landscapes, or comparative planetary morphology.
Following spatial analysis of the dunes and nearby wind streaks on the planet's surface, scientists believed that sublimation (which converts solid nitrogen directly into a gas) resulted in sand-sized grains of methane being released into the environment. This view is projected from a point 1,118 miles (1,800 km) above Pluto's equator, looking northeast over the dark, cratered Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth expanse of icy plains called Sputnik Planitia. Since the announcement of Pluto's discovery, the body has been a subject of much speculation: even from the very start, its designation as a planet was a matter of controversy. After a detailed study, scientists came to the conclusion that they consist of methane ice. Research shows that the dunes are spread across an area that is less than around 45 miles (75 kilometers) across.
"It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around minus 382 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 230 degrees Celsius), we still get dunes forming".
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Prof Hayes says we now know Pluto to be "a geologically diverse and dynamic world driven by internal heat, extreme seasons and sublimating ices".
Earth is not the only place in the solar system with dunes.
Scientists are seeing the surface of Pluto for the first time.
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"On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to release sand particles into the air, but winds that are 20 percent weaker are then sufficient to maintain transport", says Dr Eric Parteli, Lecturer in Computational Geosciences at the University of Cologne, and study co-author. Scientists also believe the dunes, which seem undisturbed, likely formed within the last 500,000 years, possibly much more recently. It would just kind of feel a lot like you're on another sand dune on the Earth'. In comparison with the pressure of Earth's atmosphere, the Pluto's atmosphere has got a lower surface pressure.
"We knew that every solar system body with an atmosphere and a solid rocky surface has dunes on it, but we didn't know what we'd find on Pluto", study lead author Matt Telfer of the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom said. They now plan to carry on investigating the dunes through computer simulations, which will in turn further enlighten them about how Pluto's winds shaped its geography.
On Pluto, solar radiation also causes temperature gradients in the granular ice layer, which contributes to the ability of dunes to form. There was some doubt about whether Pluto's extremely thin atmosphere, mainly nitrogen with minor amounts of methane and carbon monoxide, could muster the wind needed to form such features. If this is true, the dunes have to be more recent than the action of this convection otherwise they'd be churned apart by it.
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And Prof Monica Grady of the Open University told me that the discovery raises fascinating questions about whether there are dunes on worlds in other star systems too.