Pluto appears to have a large “bite mark” on its surface. New NASA images of the dwarf planet discovered a very strange anomaly on its surface. The geological irregularity that’s inconsistent with the rest of the planet appears to have a very interesting explanation.
A closer look at images snapped from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft seems to indicate Pluto has a large chunk of its mass missing as if it was bitten off. While it may appear some intergalactic entity sampled the dwarf planet, NASA scientists have another, more plausible, but exciting explanation for the unique feature.
The bite mark feature is officially referred to as the Piri Planitia. It is a remarkably flat, geologically nascent region on Pluto. Along its periphery are jagged cliffs, which clearly mark its edges. Given its abstract appearance, it does look like a bite mark, and in a way it is. A large chunk is missing, but it was not removed by anyone or anything. The seemingly unnatural formation has been formed naturally due to a phenomenon called “sublimation,” suggested NASA scientists through a press release.
Sublimation is a simple but often unseen natural process in which a solid substance transforms into a gas without passing through the liquefaction stage. Most substances pass from gas to liquid to solid when cooled and in the reverse order when heated. However, the principle is followed in the earth’s mild atmosphere, where changes are quite gradual. In the extremes of space, such a gradual process might not be followed. Extreme temperatures and lack of atmospheric pressure can have a wondrous effect on matter.
Interestingly, there are quite a few substances that go from solid to gaseous state on Earth, prominent examples being the camphor or dry ice. Similarly on Pluto, it was methane, or more particularly, solidified methane ice, that was responsible for giving birth to the bite mark.
“If that is sublimating, becoming atmospheric methane, and revealing a lower layer of water-ice, that could explain why Piri Planitia looks like a bite mark,” reported the Daily Mail.
Sublimation may be occurring when Pluto’s plains are exposed or relatively come nearer to the sun, when the planet rotates and revolves, respectively. The same phenomenon is also observed on asteroids that have frozen balls of ice on them. When the ice sublimates, the gases mix with dust particles, creating a dirty balloon around the comet, engulfing its nucleus.
Compositional data from the New Horizons spacecraft’s Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument, also referred to as Ralph, indicates that the plateau uplands are rich in methane ice and the plains have more water, reported the Christian Science Monitor. The LEISA data was gathered when the spacecraft was about 29,000 miles (47,000 kilometers) from Pluto, reported the New Delhi Times.
If it is the methane ice that’s being released into the atmosphere as a gas, the cliffs surrounding the region would rather quickly slide south, significantly expanding the water-rich plains, creating a rather smooth surface devoid of any craters. In simpler terms, there is erosion occurring on Pluto’s surface in such a manner that created a depressed plateau that appears like a bite mark.
Most of the planets show a lot of impact craters created by rogue space elements like meteorites and asteroids that get pulled in due to the planet’s gravity and land with a strong impact, creating craters.
Piri Planitia is in the western hemisphere of Pluto. Interestingly, it is quite near to the planet’s iconic heart-shaped plains, which were recently discovered by the New Horizon’s spacecraft. Interestingly, similar to Earth, Pluto’s huge mountains appear to have large quantities of snow covering their peaks. However, owing to the extremely low temperatures, the water must be rock hard, indicated scientists.
[Image via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute]