Monday, December 5, 2016

Could There Be Life in Pluto's Ocean?

View of Pluto with color-coded topography as measured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Purple and blue are low and yellow and red are high, and the informally named Sputnik Planitia stands out at top as a broad, 1300 km- (800 mile-) wide, 2.5 km- (1.5 mile-) deep elliptical basin, most likely the site of an ancient impact on Pluto. New Horizons data imply that deep beneath this nitrogen-ice filled basin is an ocean of dense, salty, ammonia-rich water. (Photo: P.M. Schenk LPI/JHUAPL/SwRI/NASA)

by Staff Writers St. Louis, MO (SPX) Dec 02, 2016

Pluto is thought to possess a subsurface ocean, which is not so much a sign of water as it is a tremendous clue that other dwarf planets in deep space also may contain similarly exotic oceans, naturally leading to the question of life, said one co-investigator with NASA's New Horizon mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

William McKinnon, professor of Earth and planetary sciences in Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and a co-author on two of four new Pluto studies published Dec. 1 in Nature, argues that beneath the heart-shaped region on Pluto known as Sputnik Planitia there lies an ocean laden with ammonia.

The presence of the pungent, colorless liquid helps to explain not only Pluto's orientation in space but also the persistence of the massive, ice-capped ocean that other researchers call "slushy" - but McKinnon prefers to depict as syrupy.

Using computer models along with topographical and compositional data culled from the New Horizon spacecraft's July 2015 flyby of Pluto, McKinnon led a study on Sputnik Planitia's churning nitrogen ice surface that appeared this past June in Nature. He is also an author on the recently released study regarding the orientation and gravity of Pluto caused by this subsurface ocean some 600 miles wide and more than 50 miles thick.

"In fact, New Horizons has detected ammonia as a compound on Pluto's big moon, Charon, and on one of Pluto's small moons. So it's almost certainly inside Pluto," McKinnon said. "What I think is down there in the ocean is rather noxious, very cold, salty and very ammonia-rich - almost a syrup.

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