Nasa finds water ice in Pluto that might be floating glaciers in frozen nitrogen

Another example of the Planet's fascinating geological activity

Pluto is weird. Good weird, but definitely weird. The latest findings from NASA's New Horizons mission help confirm that beautiful weirdness: According to the latest scientific analysis of photos and data from the July flyby, Pluto is home to rock-hard glaciers made of water ice (note: planetary scientists use the terms “water ice” or “frozen water” instead of the more obvious “ice,” because ice on other planets can be made of all sorts of molecules other than good old H2O).

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Hills of water ice on Pluto 'float' in a sea of frozen nitrogen and move over time like icebergs in Earth's Arctic Ocean

These water ice glaciers float around on frozen nitrogen, which is much more common on the frigid dwarf planet. Because of the temperature on Pluto (minus-380 degrees Fahrenheit, on average), water ice glaciers are likely as hard as mountains made of rock are on Earth. Meanwhile, nitrogen – which doesn't even freeze until it hits minus-346 degrees – is icy but flowing, like glaciers on Earth.

That water ice may be hard as rock, but it's still less dense than frozen nitrogen. NASA scientists believe the water ice hills break apart and are carried atop the nitrogen flows, causing them to move in chains and cluster together based on the flow pattern.

In some areas of Sputnik Planum (an informal name for the plains of ice flows that sit in Pluto's “heart”) these water ice mountain clusters span 12 miles across.

The informally named Challenger Colles (a tribute to the lost crew of NASA's Challenger shuttle), which is 22 miles by 37 miles across, could be a cluster of “beached” water ice mountains shoved into place by the nitrogen flows, according to the mission scientists.

Pluto's surprisingly wealth of geological activity does make its “dwarf planet” status hard to swallow for some. But whatever this little world is categorized as, one thing is for certain: It's a very cool place.

 

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