Ever since the first images of Pluto’s heart-shaped ‘message of love’ graced NASA’s Instagram feed, we’ve been pretty enamored with the dwarf planet. The New Horizons team just shared a bucketload of new and interesting deets from the distant hunk of matter, and even they aren’t sure what to make of it yet. The new info comes in the form of a mountainous map, which was shared at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences. Curiously, the map seems to illustrate the existence of two giant mountains that could actually be ice volcanoes. It seems like a lot of maybes, but it makes more sense when you hear what the team has to say about the findings.
The New Horizons team is clear about one thing, and that’s the fact that we can’t be clear about anything we think we know about Pluto at this point. The map, which was developed using a wealth of data collected during the New Horizon’s fly-by four months ago, shows two mountains which have been informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons. Each mountain has an area of lower elevation in the center. That is, the mountains seem to have a depression or a hole of some kind which, on our home planet, is a formation we refer to as a volcano.
We do know that Pluto isn’t a locale for bubbling volcanoes of molten magma, like we are accustomed to seeing here on Earth (or, at least, in the movies). Rather, it’s really, really, really cold. The two funky looking mountains, located next to one another near Pluto’s south pole, are thought to have possibly formed when a mixture of water ice, nitrogen, ammonia, or methane erupted from beneath the dwarf planet’s surface. As such, NASA scientists are now referring to those mountains as “cryovolcanoes,” a reference to their icy origins.
This finding builds on images released earlier this year of what NASA then referred to as Pluto’s “icy mountains.” What we are seeing in this new image adds a layer of intrigue to the previous images by illustrating the differences in elevation that were previously not known. This is just the sort of thing that NASA folks live for.
“The New Horizons mission has taken what we thought we knew about Pluto and turned it upside down,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It’s why we explore — to satisfy our innate curiosity and answer deeper questions about how we got here and what lies beyond the next horizon.”
Images via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute and NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI