Pluto Might Have Ice Volcanoes On Its Surface

Erupting slush instead of lava

Pluto's surface is covered by young, icy mountains

Pluto's Young, Icy Mountains

This view from 478,000 miles shows that Pluto is home to huge, 11,000-foot tall mountains, probably composed of water ice. The lack of impact craters suggests that Pluto's surface is young, probably less than 100 million years old.NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI

Soon after the New Horizons spacecraft whizzed by Pluto earlier this year, scientists noticed young, icy mountains in the southern part of the planet. Now NASA scientists have noticed evidence that these mountains might be cryovolcanoes--volcanoes that spew ice and other frozen substances instead of lava like volcanoes here on Earth.

Yesterday, at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences meeting, researchers announced that those mountains, Wright Mons and Piccard Mons had the distinctive shape of a volcano.

"These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing--a volcano," Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher said in a statement. "If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have traveled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don't yet know."

Pluto

Pluto

Two possible sites for cryovolcanoes on Pluto.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The researchers can't definitively confirm that Wright Mons and Piccard Mons are volcanoes, but if they are, they probably erupt a slushy mixture of partially frozen water, nitrogen, ammonia, or methane.

While Earth is among the most volcanically active bodies in the solar system, there are other volcanically active worlds, including Venus and Jupiter's moon Io, which is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Jupiter's moon Enceladus and Neptune's moon Triton both have cryovolcanoes. With more data coming in from New Horizons, soon Pluto might earn a permanent spot on that list.