NASA peeks at possible ice volcano on Pluto

The New Horizons spacecraft delivers a closer look at what might be a dramatic ice volcano on the surface of Pluto.

Everyone knows what a volcano looks like. It spews out hot lava, spits fire and screams "Don't touch me!" If you were an astronaut faced with a volcano on Pluto, you might see something very different than what we're familiar with here on Earth. NASA thinks the dwarf planet may have ice volcanoes on its surface.

NASA has known about the possibility of ice volcanoes on Pluto since last year, but a new image released on Thursday gives scientists a closer look at one of the potential sites for such exotic activity. The New Horizons spacecraft zoomed in for a close flyby in July and has been sending back data and images ever since. The composite color image shows a feature called Wright Mons, named for the pioneering Wright brothers. Wright Mons is massive at 90 miles (150 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) high. If NASA confirms that it is an ice volcano, then "it would be the largest such feature discovered in the outer solar system."

This could be an ice volcano on Pluto.

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Ice volcanoes, also known as cryovolcanoes, kick out a slush containing ice, nitrogen, ammonia and methane, as opposed to the molten rock spit out by Earth volcanoes. Scientists suspect ice volcanoes exist on Saturn's moon Titan and Neptune's moon Triton. "To put them in perspective -- if Mount Vesuvius had been a cryovolcano, its lava would have frozen the residents of Pompeii," says NASA scientist Rosaly Lopes.

Wright Mons is located near the bottom left-side point of Pluto's heart, a heart-shaped formation that covers a large part of the dwarf planet's surface. The area in the close-up image is notable for its lack of impact craters. NASA says this tells scientists the surface here was created relatively recently and may point to volcanic activity as the culprit.

Pluto is a surprisingly diverse place. Its surface is covered with icy plains, ancient cratered areas and possible dunes. There's even a pitted area that scientists say acts like an icy lava lamp.

New Horizons launched in 2006, the same year Pluto was demoted from a full planet to dwarf-planet status. The spacecraft reached its main destination in 2015, but there are still plenty of discoveries to be made and new mysteries to be solved as NASA works through the heaps of data and images coming back from deep into space.

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