Is Pluto home to nuclear-powered ice volcanoes?

New Images from NASA's New Horizons mission show what could be tall craters erupting not with lava, but with ice warmed by radioactivity.

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Eric Mack
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Pluto keeps getting weirder.


Data from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft presented Monday suggests Pluto might be dotted with volcanoes spewing ice and powered by the radioactive decay of elements within the dwarf planet.

Images from the craft's flyby of Pluto earlier this year show a pair of circular mountains near the south pole that have deep depressions in their center, according to Nature.com. The structures resemble the sort of craters seen on Earth and elsewhere that are prone to geologic spewing, as in volcanoes, and that's prompting scientists to take a closer look.

"We're not yet ready to announce we have found volcanic constructs at Pluto, but these sure look suspicious and we're looking at them very closely," Jeff Moore, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center said at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

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A slide from the New Horizons teams' presentation on possible cryovolcanoes on Pluto

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Ice volcanoes, or cryovolcanoes, are seen on other icy worlds like Neptune's moon Triton. Rather than spewing lava and molten rock like on Earth, it's suspected that the radioactive breakdown of elements deep in Pluto's interior left over from its formation could be melting ice and allowing it to flow to the surface.

The two possible cryovolcanic mountains on Pluto are Wright Mons, which may be over 16,000 feet (4,877 meters) tall, and the awesomely named Picard Mons, which could be just shy of 20,000 feet (6,096 meters).

"These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing -- a volcano," Oliver White, a New Horizons postdoctoral researcher, said in a NASA release.

It is just another potential surprise from a planet that has so far baffled scientists since New Horizons began sending back data in July. These oddities include Pluto's weird snakeskin-like features to potentially blue skies.

And there's still more to come. New Horizons mission scientists told the crowd at AAS that much more data is still being downloaded and a raft of new papers and findings are being prepared for submission to scientific journals.

I sense the coming of new hashtags and bumper stickers -- #KeepPlutoWeird.

Pluto, you so crazy (pictures)

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