Written by Nihal Dhingra, a grade 9 student
Pluto, earlier considered as the ninth planet of the solar system, is now known as a dwarf planet since the year 2006 as it did not meet the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) planetary criteria; it hasn’t cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit of other objects. However, it is the only place other than Earth to have white-capped mountains. Until 13 October 2020, people logically believed that the reason the mountains are white is due to snow. But NASA’s discovery has proven otherwise. These white caps are made of methane frost whereas the white caps on Earth are made due to snow.
Methane hydrate (also known as methane frost) is a crystalline solid formed naturally, only when conditions are favourable for its formation. It consists of two elements; methane and water. Methane hydrate is normally found underwater at a depth of 4,000 m below sea level in the ocean. The “methane” in methane hydrate is known to form as microbes degrade organic matter on the sea floor.
“In combination with the other evidence collected by my colleagues, my results showed that even under near-freezing temperatures, at extremely high pressures, with only heavy oil and saltwater for food-sources, life was flourishing and leaving its mark,” Dr Bowden from University School of Geosciences said.
NASA’s “New Horizons” Spacecraft was the first spacecraft ever to visit the dwarf planet Pluto in 2015. However, the frosted peaks on the planet, similar to those on the Earth, were detected in 2020. New horizons made some startling new discoveries. Jagged landscapes around Pluto’s equator made of frozen methane resembled rows of knives with edges pointing up and measuring hundreds of feet. The spacecraft also discovered a vast 1000 km wide heart-shaped nitrogen-ice plain also known as Sputnik Planum, which is the largest known glacier in the solar system.
This is a very exciting discovery as it enables scientists to mull the possibility of life on Pluto and other planets in the outer periphery which were earlier considered too cold for organisms to survive but now could be possible hosts for micro-organisms with their tiny atmospheres and ecosystems.
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