New evidence for Pluto’s subsurface ocean | 5/23/2019 | Paul Scott Anderson
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A natural color view of Pluto, as seen by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. New research adds to the evidence for a subsurface ocean beneath Pluto’s ice crust. Sputnik Planitia is the region of smoother-looking nitrogen ice in the middle right of the image. Image via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker.

At least several moons in the outer solar system are now known or suspected to have subsurface oceans beneath their cold, icy surfaces. Scientists also think that the dwarf planet Pluto may have one as well, based on data from the 2015 flyby of NASA’s New Horizons mission. How can this little, frozen, rocky ball much farther out than Neptune have an ocean?

Research - Scientists - Japan - US - Evidence

Now, new research by scientists in Japan and the U.S. adds more evidence for this intriguing possibility. The findings were announced in a joint press release from Hokkaido University, Earth-Life Science Institute at Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tokushima University, Osaka University, Kobe University and the University of California, Santa Cruz. The researchers published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Geoscience on May 20, 2019.

In the new study, computer simulations suggest that a layer of gas hydrates (clathrate hydrates) – crystalline water-based solids physically resembling ice – between the ocean and the outer ice crust could keep the subsurface ocean insulated and liquid. Without that insulating layer, any liquid water would probably have frozen solid millions or billions of years ago. From the paper’s abstract:

Icy - System - Bodies - Subsurface - Oceans

Many icy solar system bodies possess subsurface oceans. On Pluto, Sputnik Planitia’s location near the equator suggests the presence of a subsurface ocean and a locally thinned ice shell. To maintain an ocean, Pluto needs to retain heat inside.

The current proposed interior structure of Pluto. The clathrate (gas) hydrate layer – most likely methane – would help keep Pluto’s interior ocean liquid, while the outer ice...
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