Pluto has yet to run out of mind-blowing mysteries.
The latest data from the New Horizons spacecraft, which flew past Pluto in July, suggest the dwarf planet hosts ice volcanoes more than 100 miles wide. What’s more, researchers think these “cryovolcanoes” only recently stopped spewing and sputtering frozen liquids.
Scientists already knew about Pluto’s icy mountain ranges, with some peaks as tall as Mount Everest here on Earth. But new 3D maps of Pluto’s rugged terrain suggest that two of its largest features could be cryovolcanoes — huge, slush-barfing mountains.
Nothing like this has ever been spotted this far out in the outer solar system, New Horizons geologist Jeffrey Moore said in a NASA press release.
You can see one of the suspect cryovolcanoes in the image below. Scientists have nicknamed it Wright Mons, which is about 13,000 feet tall, and they think the circular depression in the middle of the image could be the opening of an ice volcano.
The opening spans about 35 miles across:
The following 3D-elevation map shows the height of both features.
Wright Mons is on the top, and Piccard Mons is on the bottom. Brown patches show the peaks, blue patches show depressions, and the green shows intermediate height. You can see the bluish colour at the center of both mountain peaks, suggesting a volcanic mouth:
“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 researcher, said in the press release.
But unlike Earth volcanoes that spit out molten rock and lava, cryovolcanoes release a slushy mix of ice, ammonia, nitrogen or methane.
This latest discovery fits into the strange geology puzzle that is Pluto. The dwarf planet is covered with patches of heavily cratered surface, which implies they have remained unchanged since the dwarf planet first formed about 4 billion years ago.
Yet Pluto also has expansive smooth surfaces that can’t be more than 10 million years old. On a geological timescale, its like those smooth patches appeared just yesterday.
Cryovolcanic eruptions could be responsible for the smoothed-over terrain. Either way, it appears that Pluto isn’t just a long-dead chunk of rock floating at the edge of our solar system. It’s a complex and recently geologically active world.
We’ll learn more as new data from New Horizons continues to arrive over the next few months.
NOW WATCH: Pluto and its moon Charon have something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the solar system
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.