Ice Volcanoes on Pluto May Be “Recent”

A new analysis of images taken by the New Horizons in 2015 has found that several giant ice volcanoes on Pluto were active in the geologically recent past.

Beth Johnson

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IMAGE: Perspective view of Pluto’s icy volcanic region. The surface and atmospheric hazes of Pluto are shown here in greyscale, with an artistic interpretation of how past volcanic processes may have operated superimposed in blue. CREDIT: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Isaac Herrera/Kelsi Singer

A new analysis of images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft as it flew by Pluto back in 2015 has found that several giant ice volcanoes were active in the geologically recent past. These findings suggest that Pluto managed to hang on to its internal heat longer than previously thought, and that could change our perspective on other bodies in our solar system.

The results were published in Nature Communications and led by Kelsi Singer.

Ice volcanoes, as you probably expect, are different from the terrestrial lava-based volcanoes we have on Earth and other planets such as Venus and Mars. Instead of fountains of lava, ice volcanoes have a “thicker, slushy icy-water mix or even possibly a solid flow like glaciers,” according to Singer. And the ones on Pluto don’t match what we’ve seen on other icy worlds in our solar system. Singer goes on to explain: The features on Pluto are the only vast field of very large icy volcanoes and they have a unique texture of undulating terrain… we believe they could be as young as a few hundred million years or even younger.

Even more intriguing, the region is pretty clear of impact craters, so these eruptions could still be happening. And one of the possible cryovolcanoes, Wright Mons, is huge — five kilometers high and 150 kilometers wide, with the same volume as Mauna Loa in Hawai’i.

I think Singer summed up the discovery best when she said: I love the idea that we have so much left to learn about the solar system. Every time we go somewhere new, we find new things that we didn’t predict — like giant, recently-formed ice volcanoes on Pluto.

We love the idea, too, and we look forward to more stories like this as we continue to gain insight into our own solar system.

More Information

SwRI press release

Large-scale cryovolcanic resurfacing on Pluto,” Kelsi N. Singer et al., 2022 March 29, Nature Communications

This story was written for the Daily Space podcast/YouTube series. Want more news from myself, Dr. Pamela Gay, and Erik Madaus? Check out DailySpace.org.

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Beth Johnson

Planetary scientist, podcast host. Communication specialist for SETI Institute and Planetary Science Institute. Buy me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/planetarypan