Research Press Release

Planetary science: A hot start for Pluto

Nature Geoscience

June 23, 2020

Pluto may have been hot when it formed and had a subsurface liquid ocean early in its development, according to a study published in Nature Geoscience.

Previous analyses of Pluto have assumed it was cold and icy when it formed in the distant Kuiper belt. Researchers have argued that the liquid ocean — thought to exist beneath the thick ice shell — developed much later as a result of the decay of radioactive elements heated in Pluto’s rocky core.

Carver Bierson and colleagues compared thermal model simulations of the evolution of Pluto’s interior to geological observations from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. They found that, under a cold formation scenario, the compressional stresses generated in the planet’s icy shell are not consistent with the structures observed on Pluto’s surface by New Horizons. However, under a warm formation scenario, with an early subsurface ocean, the stresses generated in Pluto’s shell are consistent with the extensional structures observed on its surface. The authors further propose that a ‘hot start’ scenario may have been possible if Pluto formed quickly.

These findings suggest that Pluto and other large dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt may have been hot and had subsurface oceans at formation. The authors suggest that the long-term chemical interactions between these oceans and the rocky materials below may have implications for ocean chemistry and the potential habitability of these distant icy worlds.


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