Pluto may still have an ocean under its ice

Image: Pluto faults
New Horizons spied extensional faults on Pluto, a sign that the dwarf planet has undergone a global expansion possibly due to the slow freezing of a subsurface ocean. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Pluto is one of the coldest places in the solar system, but scientists say geological activity could still keep an ocean’s worth of water liquid beneath the dwarf planet’s surface.

Brown University’s Noah Hammond and his colleagues lay out their argument in a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Readings from NASA’s New Horizons probe have shown that Pluto possesses mountains of water ice that rise as high as 11,000 feet, and there’s also evidence of tectonic activity associated with that ice. The newly published paper looks into the implications of those geological forces.

“Our model shows that recent geological activity on Pluto can be driven just from phase changes in the ice – no tides or exotic materials or unusual processes are required,” Hammond said in a news release. Depending on the depth of Pluto’s ice, the pressures far beneath the surface could keep water in a liquid state.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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