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Salty Oceans Hiding Underneath Pluto's Heart, Research Suggests

Sep 25, 2016 04:00 AM EDT
New Horizons Nears July 14 Flyby Of Pluto
A new study suggests that there could be salty oceans hidden underneath Pluto's icy heart.
(Photo : NASA/APL/SwRI via Getty Images)

Pluto may no longer be considered as an actual planet but it has earned a place for itself in the Solar System. With interesting attributes, the icy world is still baffling scientists until today. The latest study suggests that salty oceans may be hiding underneath the frozen surface of Pluto.

Pluto's icy "heart" was identified during a flyby to the dwarf planet, and is considered as one of the most important discoveries about the body located at the edge of the Solar System. Since then, a lot of studies have been conducted and there was impressive conclusion regarding Pluto's heart, one of which is the theory that Pluto's heart is beating like a cosmic lava lamp.

Geologist Brandon Johnson from Brown University led the study that was published in the Geophysical Research letters. Based on the study, there could be about 100 kilometers of subsurface liquid water on Pluto with a salinity similar to the Dead Sea.

"Thermal models of Pluto's interior and tectonic evidence found on the surface suggest that an ocean may exist, but it's not easy to infer its size or anything else about it," Brandon Johnson, lead author of the study and assistant professor at Brown University's Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences said in a statement. "We've been able to put some constraints on its thickness and get some clues about composition," Johnson added.

The "heart" is found at the Tombaugh Regio and according to a new research, the heart is not just an aesthetic feature of Pluto but is hiding something significant underneath. The study suggests that massive oceans are underneath Pluto's heart, a surprising conclusion given the dwarf planet's distance to the Sun.

The study states that the clue to find the subsurface oceans is the tidal axis that connects Pluto and its moon, Charon. This means both the moon and the dwarf planet are "tidally locked," where the same side is always facing each other with the moon orbiting at the same pace as its host dwarf planet.

The "tidal lock" causes greater force exertion of areas known to have greater mass, so experts are expecting that the center of the tidal axis has greater mass in order to behave this way. Sputnik Planum is the center of the tidal axis where Pluto's heart is located. Pluto's impact craters play a huge part on this oddity.

"An impact crater is basically a hole in the ground," Brown University geologist Brandon Johnson said in a statement. "You're taking a bunch of material and blasting it out, so you expect it to have a negative mass anomaly, but that's not what we see with Sputnik Planum. That got people thinking about how you could get this positive mass anomaly," Johnson added.

Experts believe that there could be nitrogen ice underneath Sputnik Planum; however, it may not be thick enough to make up for a positive mass anomaly. What occurs on Pluto could be what experts call as "isostatic compensation." This anomaly happens when impact craters are formed. During the process, some surface tends to rebound back northwards, pulling the materials beneath it. Known models of isostatic compensation involve a deposit of liquid layer that could also be occurring on the Sputnik Planum region or more popularly known as Pluto's heart.

Researchers created simulations of the scenario and the results say that there could be a 62-mile thick ocean underneath Pluto's heart with a salinity of 30 percent.


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