High resolution view of Pluto surface

Pluto Volcanoes – Ice Fumes in a Far World

Do Pluto Volcanoes Really Exist?

Let’s carry the conclusion sentence here: Pluto volcanoes might exist. But not in the most common way.

The ordinary volcanoes we are familiar are the ones on Earth and on Jupiter‘s satellite IO. And we know they are consequences of complex activities behind the crusts. Those activities basically cause the internal pressure of celestial bodies increase and force to spew fluids together with rocky material out.

Jupiter Moon IO in true colors. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Our home becomes more nasty and chaotic when you intend to go beneath the surface. Variation of inner temperature and pressure together with tectonic activities lets heated and molten rocks rise from mantle through the cracks. Consequently those materials reach above the crust. This is how an ordinary volcanic eruption occurs, and this process can be triggered by several reasons.

However, we are sure that planet Pluto does not have that kind of heating process beyond what we can see on its surface. That is why, you can not observe such a behaviour on Pluto surface. But don’t worry, Pluto is not out of options!

An erupting volcano
An erupting volcano. Source here.

What is a Cryovolcano?

The word “cryo” here is a prefix meaning “frozen” and the word became cool after it could be profitably marketed in 20th century.

A cryovolcano is a volcano which erupts volatile compounds of water, methane and ammonia instead of molten rocks. The triggering pressure source for such volcanism is mostly considered to be the tidal force acting from the closest objects like satellites or planets.

We mostly believe the cryovolcanoes exist on other icy satellites and planets. However some scientists are working on cryovolcanism on Earth as well.

Yamal-Peninsula area in Russia
Yamal Peninsula – Russia, where scientists believe is a cryovolcanic area. Photo source and details here.

Cryovolcanoes on Other Celestial Objects

In the end of 2005, Cassini spacecraft got the first direct evidence of spatial eruption on north pole of Enceladus; one of Saturn‘s biggest moons. The eruptions were clearly visible and hundreds of kilometers high.

Water jets on Saturn's moon Enceladus
Beautiful water jets observed on moon Enceladus. Photo source here, Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

However, those gaysers are still not the direct proof of “cryovolcanism” as no clear evidences about cryovolcanic structure is observed yet.

Strong signs of cryovolcanism is observed on another Saturn moon Titan and planet Ceres; together with Pluto for now.

Pluto Volcanoes – Signs of Cryovolcanoes on Pluto Surface

Pluto Volcanoes Matter!

OK, how such cryovolcanism can be observed on Pluto surface?

We don’t have neither a direct evidence of active cryovolcanoes nor any observation confirming this yet. But researchers believe we have confronted strong indirect signs of cryovolcanism.

In the end of 2015, below stunningly detailed images were publicized by New Horizons Team.

Pluto surface image
A high resolution Pluto picture from Wright Mons area. This area was considered to include one of the Pluto volcanoes. Source: NASA

The area is near the south pole of Pluto and hosts 2 huge mountains unoficially named as Wright and Picard Mountains. Researchers reported that on top of both two hills, crater-like structures have been observed. Although it seems like an evidence of a volcanic eruption, none of the astronomers could come up with any side proof supporting that.

Pluto Volcanoes – Focus Shifts to Virgil Fossae

Detailed images of surface even provides the chance to map Pluto! Luckily in 2019, researchers from New Horizons Team announced new findings of possible Pluto volcanoes on another location.

On the south east part of visible hemisphere of Pluto, there is another area: Virgil Fossae. This hundreds of kilometers wide area took researchers’ attention as it is a more convenient source of potential cryovolcanism for a number of reasons.

High resolution view of Pluto surface
Virgil Fossae area where signs of Pluto volcanoes are studied. Source: NASA

First of all, there are signs of entrained materials in the area. And those materials look like frozen remains of possibly erupted materials. What’s more; compounds of ammonia together with water ice (which is calculated to be less than a billion years old) is detected in the same neighbourhood. If the hypothesis is correct, geologically young cryovolcanoes have errupted soon.

So researchers believe what they observe on Virgil Fossae area is the frozen cryolava which is few thousand km²s wide.

As mentioned above, scientists believe tidal forces trigger such activities on celestial objects. In our case, guess who chips Pluto’s crust off: Moon Charon. What is more, opposite of this interaction could be shaping Charon surface as well!

Above all: If that’s the case, most likely the water particles were in liquid form and some of them were erupted from Pluto’s subsurface ocean in the past!

This can mean that both fascinating (but unclear) Pluto facts might trigger each other: Erupting Pluto volcanoes and a hidden Pluto ocean!

Any Chance to Have Direct Evidence of Pluto Volcanoes?

Can we observe ice erupting from beyond on Pluto, similar to moon Enceladus?

Astronomers are not 100% sure whether potential Pluto volcanoes are active for the last few million years. Thus, there are no optimistic answers to this question yet. However the signs on Virgil Fossae area strongly suggest that Pluto pierced its atmosphere and sparkled its sky via ice eruption some time ago.

One thing indeed is for sure: The more we understand how rocky planets behave, the more we will explore. And we will be one step ahead on revealing new gems of our planet. This will eventually lead us understanding how universe works.

References

  • NASA:
    – 14 January 2016, “Possible Ice Volcano on Pluto Has the ‘Wright Stuff’”
    https://www.nasa.gov/feature/possible-ice-volcano-on-pluto-has-the-wright-stuff
    – 6 May 2015, “Enceladus Curtains: Comparing Data and Simulation”
    https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/cassini/pia19061/enceladus-curtains-comparing-data-and-simulation
  • Wikipedia:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryovolcano
  • 9-2018, “Cryovolcanism on the Earth: Origin of a Spectacular Crater in the Yamal Peninsula (Russia)”
    Sergey N. Buldovicz, Vanda Z. Khilimonyuk, Andrey Y. Bychkov, Evgeny N. Ospennikov, Sergey A. Vorobyev, Aleksey Y. Gunar, Evgeny I. Gorshkov, Evgeny M. Chuvilin, Maria Y. Cherbunina, Pavel I. Kotov, Natalia V. Lubnina, Rimma G. Motenko, Ruslan M. Amanzhurov 
    Link: (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-31858-9)
  • 4-2019, “Recent cryovolcanism in Virgil Fossae on Pluto”
    Dale P. Cruikshank, Orkan M. Umurhan, Ross A. Beyer, Bernard Schmitt, James T. Keane, Kirby D. Runyon, Dimitra Atri, Oliver L. White, Isamu Matsuyama, Jeffrey M. Moore, William B. McKinnon, Scott A. Sandford, Kelsi N. Singer, William M. Grundy et al.
    Link: (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0019103518307346)
  • We aim to build a proper Pluto encyclopedia and your contributions are highly appreciated!
  • Any deficiencies on this article? Please type to below comment box or contact us from this link. We are ready to check and clarify.

Leave a Reply