According to previous studies, scientists believe in the possibility of Pluto having a subsurface ocean – if not at the moment, then at least at some point during its history.
But researchers from Brown University are determined to get rid of some of the confusion. Their study, featured in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggests that, most likely, there still exists a subsurface ocean on the retrograded ninth planet.
Brown scientists designed a computer model that simulates Pluto’s evolution and fed it with data gathered by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. The model’s data suggests that if Pluto’s ocean had dried up many millions of years ago, a considerable shrinking would have occurred on the dwarf planet.
But since there are no signs of shrinking, scientists believe the subsurface ocean is still present – more likely than not. Noah Hammond, the senior author of the new study and a grad student at Brown, explained the new theory in a news release.
“Thanks to the incredible data returned by New Horizons, we were able to observe tectonic features on Pluto’s surface, update our thermal evolution model with new data and infer that Pluto most likely has a subsurface ocean today.”
It was after the New Horizons probe returned photos of Pluto’s dynamic landscape that researchers started theorizing about the dwarf planet hosting a subsurface ocean.
In addition to the beautiful icy plains and the amazing tall mountains, the probe also revealed imagery of extensive tectonic fractures – signs of an ocean slowly freezing.
Ever since they saw the first images, researchers started wondering how a subsurface ocean on Pluto would look like. Does it still exist underneath the surface? Or has it frozen millions of years ago?
Called a “thermal evolution model,” the new model simulated the evolution of Pluto’s ocean based on the data we have on the dwarf planet and found a fully frozen ocean would have a significantly reduced volume.
Instead of finding evidence of planetary shrinkage, the data points to Pluto’s expansion. Also, the team notes the planet’s icy surface could be thicker than previously suggested, and that the heat is retained with the help of slabs of nitrogen and methane ice.
The Brown thermal model combined with the New Horizons data does indeed suggest Pluto could still host a subsurface ocean.
Image Source: Seeker