Now Even Pluto May Be Harboring A Subsurface Ocean

Pluto Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)


A new study of Pluto’s massive chasms strongly suggests that the former planet is concealing a liquid water ocean beneath its bizarre and wildly varying surface.

From the abstract in Geophysical Research Letters:

The New Horizons spacecraft has found evidence for geologic activity on the surface of Pluto, including extensional tectonic deformation of its water ice bedrock (see Moore et al.[2016]). One mechanism that could drive extensional tectonic activity is global surface expansion due to the partial freezing of an ocean. We use updated physical properties for Pluto and simulate its thermal evolution to understand the survival of a possible subsurface ocean. For thermal conductivities of rock less than 3 W m−1 K−1, an ocean forms and at least partially freezes, leading to recent extensional stresses in the ice shell. In scenarios where the ocean freezes and the ice shell is thicker than 260 km, ice II forms and causes global volume contractions. Since there is no evidence for recent compressional tectonic features, we argue that ice II has not formed and that Pluto’s ocean has likely survived to present day.

Brown University, which supported the study has the full write-up, but the implications are fascinating. Who would have thought, only a decade or two ago that our solar system is full of water worlds, even as far out as Kuiper Belt objects?

And while the technology may seem ridiculously out of reach, it now becomes possible to speculate about the prospects of human settlements even on that far away world, nestled somewhere in the middle, taking advantage of the heat differential between the dead cold surface above, and the vastly warmer ocean several hundred miles below.

Posted in: Outer Planets

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