Because of how far away it is from the sun, scientists have long thought that the planet Pluto has always been basically a frozen ball of ice.
“For a long time people have thought about the thermal evolution of Pluto and the ability of an ocean to survive to the present day,” said co-author Francis Nimmo, professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz. “Now that we have images of Pluto’s surface from NASA’s New Horizons mission, we can compare what we see with the predictions of different thermal evolution models.”
What they now believe is that Pluto may have been super hot when it was first formed and that there could actually be liquid oceans hosting alien life underneath its 37-mile deep icy exterior.
“If it started cold and the ice melted internally, Pluto would have contracted and we should see compression features on its surface, whereas if it started hot it should have expanded as the ocean froze and we should see extension features on the surface,” said the study’s first author, UCSC graduate student Carver Bierson. “We see lots of evidence of expansion, but we don’t see any evidence of compression, so the observations are more consistent with Pluto starting with a liquid ocean.”
NASA time-lapse image of Pluto’s development through the years.
The reasons they believe there is potentially a liquid ocean underneath the icy surface would be due to (1) “heat released by the decay of radioactive elements” in the core of Pluto and (2) “gravitational energy released as new material bombarded the surface of the growing protoplanet.”
In the image below we see extensional faults (highlighted with arrows) on the surface of Pluto which indicate expansion of the dwarf planet’s icy crust, which are attributed to the freezing of a subsurface ocean.
“How Pluto was put together in the first place matters a lot for its thermal evolution,” Nimmo said. “If it builds up too slowly, the hot material at the surface radiates energy into space, but if it builds up fast enough the heat gets trapped inside.”
The researchers calculated that if Pluto formed over a period of less that 30,000 years, then it would have started out hot. If, instead, accretion took place over a few million years, a hot start would only be possible if large impactors buried their energy deep beneath the surface.
The new findings imply that other large Kuiper belt objects probably also started out hot and could have had early oceans. These oceans could persist to the present day in the largest objects, such as the dwarf planets Eris and Makemake.
“Even in this cold environment so far from the sun, all these worlds might have formed fast and hot, with liquid oceans,” Bierson said.
“By examining Pluto’s features today we can begin to understand its birth four and a half billion years ago,” Bierson added. “We are pretty sure water is one of the ingredients for life.”
Yes, yes it is.
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