Pluto Had Lakes And Rivers, But Not Made Of Water — NASA Proposes New Theory Explaining The Bizarre Terrain Of The Dwarf Planet

Pluto may have had lakes and rivers, suggested NASA. The New Horizons spacecraft indicated the dwarf planet had liquid nitrogen flowing in those geological formations.

Pluto may have once been teeming with lakes and rivers of liquid nitrogen, indicated scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference on Monday. Despite having sped past Pluto about eight months ago in a historic flyby, there is still a lot of information that’s still be analyzed and investigated, which means there are many secrets the dwarf planet has yet to reveal, shared NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green.

“As planetary scientists, what the data revealed did not surprise us. It shocked us. What a beautiful system to study.”

Though New Horizons is now almost 300 million kilometers past Pluto, the space probe is still sending back a treasure trove of data about the dwarf planet. Merely days after multiple papers were published using the probe’s data, researchers have begun sharing a barrage of speculative findings, reported Standard.

Data sent back by New Horizons has proven instrumental in determining how the climate and atmospheric pressure of Pluto had changed over time. In fact current models strongly indicate there were periods in Pluto’s history, when temperatures and pressures were so high, the conditions became just right for the planet to have lakes and rivers teeming with liquid nitrogen. The gas “boils” at -195 degree Celsius. However, with high amount of pressure, it can stay in liquid form.

If the atmospheric pressure was high enough for a prolonged period of time, the temperatures would have risen too. While the conditions are rather rare, Pluto may have had just the right balance, wherein there would be a presence of liquid nitrogen on the crust. This discovery was made by analyzing data from New Horizon’s model that is based on the history of Pluto’s climate and atmospheric pressure, reported New Scientist.

The presence of lakes and rivers flowing with liquid nitrogen could easily explain Pluto’s rather mysterious topography, noted Alan Stern, the mission leader.

“We see what for all the world looks to a lot of our team like a former lake. It’s very smooth, as if a liquid has frozen across one height. It’s hard to come up with an alternate model that would explain that morphology.”

Essentially, the large flat areas on its exterior were likely formed by bodies of still liquid and the terrain networks could be a result of liquid nitrogen rivers, reported The Daily Mail. Needless to add, a large portion of the nitrogen is now frozen solid, but researchers are confident that the planet may be hiding some pockets of liquid nitrogen, even near the surface.

The presence of lakes and rivers made up of liquid nitrogen at such a large distance from the sun may seem absurd, however, scientists attribute this phenomenon to Pluto’s unique tilt or angle of rotation. Most of Pluto is “tropical,” shared The New Horizon team member Richard Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Here on Earth, climate zones are a result of the 23 degree tilt of its axis to the sun. There is a tropics zone, focused around the equator, where the sun passes directly over it. But Pluto’s tropics can reach the north, as it has a 120 degree tilt and the arctic zones extend to its equator. The planet doesn’t get chilly because its arctic zones extend so far that they cross over in to the tropics.”

Interestingly, about 800,000 years ago, Pluto’s axis may have tilted by 103 degrees, causing the planet to experience a “climate extreme,” reported Yahoo!. This event essentially shifted the tropical regions towards the poles, while the arctic zones were stretched to the equator.

It is during such events, Pluto’s atmospheric pressure was higher than Mars and gave rise to rivers and lakes that had liquid nitrogen. This molten nitrogen may have darted across the surface, to eventually accumulate in flatter areas, giving the planet its distinct topography.

[Image via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute]