Frontier Adventure

An Unusual Crater on Pluto Might be a Supervolcano

Pluto with a super-cryovolcano? Why not! All the elements are there, just not in the way we normally think of volcanoes. And, cryovolcanoes are the reason why Pluto’s surface looks the way it does. A recent research paper explains why Pluto could be the home of the latest supervolcano discovery in the Solar System.

Planetary scientist Dale Cruikshank and a group of colleagues have been studying a strange feature on Pluto called Kiladze Crater. Its existence raises a lot of questions about what’s happening inside Pluto to create this weird landscape. The researchers recently released a paper exploring this region and offering an explanation for its appearance.

Kiladze (circled) is likely a super cryovolcano on Pluto. It contains fault structures and collapse pits that could be formed through cryovolcanism. The crater (or caldara) shape is distorted, likely from internal stresses and tectonic shifting. Courtesy New Horizons mission (labeled by author).
Kiladze (circled) is likely a super cryovolcano on Pluto. It contains fault structures and collapse pits that formed through cryovolcanism. The crater (or caldara) shape looks distorted, likely from internal stresses and tectonic shifting. Courtesy New Horizons mission (labeled by author).

Interior Action Drives Cryovolcanism

The team suggests strongly that Kiladze is a super cryovolcano. Cryovolcanism is the process that sends ice “lava” to the surface of Pluto. We’ve seen it across the outer solar system, in some of the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Like its “sister” form of volcanism here on Earth, some kind of heating melts mantle materials, which can eventually escape to the surface. We’re used to seeing rocky lavas. However, ice and water act as “lava”, too, if conditions are just right.


Cryvolcanism at Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. This Cassini narrow-angle camera image looks across the south pole of Enceladus and its geysers of material. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

And, that’s where Pluto comes in because the conditions are ripe for cryovolcanism. During the New Horizons Pluto flyby in 2015, several features drew the attention of scientists as possible cryovolcanic regions. That included a region called Virgil Fossae. It lies to one side of Sputnik Planitia, a prominent heart-shaped surface feature on Pluto. Kiladze lies at the top of the right “lobe” of the heart and its appearance really had Cruikshank and his colleagues debating its cause.

Mapping Kiladze

New Horizons acquired both images and spectroscopy of Pluto during its flyby in 2015. One thing that became immediately evident about Kiladze is that there’s water ice scattered around it. That’s unusual because methane and nitrogen ice cover most of the surface of Pluto. So, a patch of water ice surrounding a strange-looking feature seemed unusual. Not only that, but the ice contained an ammonia compound. Some kind of activity brought the water-ammonia mixture up from deep below the surface. But what?

Did you miss our previous article…
https://mansbrand.com/trekking-icelands-laugavegur-and-fimmvruhls-trailsa-photo-gallery/

Trending

Exit mobile version