When temperatures warm up here on Earth, our glaciers melt but it’s having the opposite effect on those found on Pluto. Of course, while our glaciers are made up of mostly snow and ice, the ones situated on Pluto contain methane and nitrogen.
According to a new research study, when the temperatures change on the dwarf planet, glaciers may expand and grow. The methane and nitrogen glaciers were noticed in 2015 when NASA’s New Horizons probe flew by the planet. And based on the images captured by the spacecraft, scientists were able to determine that the methane and nitrogen grains moved around when the temperatures on the planet heated up, potentially causing the glaciers to grow and expand.
It’s hard to believe that a planet that’s located 4.67 billion miles from Earth would have warmer seasons, but it is a true fact. It’s so far away from us that it takes Pluto 248 Earth years to complete a full orbit around the sun. Its “warmer” season is still more than minus 350 degrees as Pluto has a surface temperature that varies from minus 418 to minus 364 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 250 to minus 220 Celsius) between the seasons so it’s still extremely cold on the best of days.
Helen Maynard-Casely, who is a planetary scientist at the Bragg Institute, ANSTO and the lead author of the study, explained in a statement, “In the warmer seasons of Pluto, still about -220 C, both the methane and nitrogen molecules are freely rotating in the solids — the molecules are not bound together very well,” adding, “Studies of the mechanical properties of these materials at very low temperatures are really challenging, so we are missing useful information for the unusual conditions on the outer planetary bodies.”
The research team recreated conditions on the dwarf planet by using Wombat which is a high-intensity neutron diffractometer that’s situated in the OPAL Neutron Guide Hall at the Australian Center for Neutron Scattering. They studied how the molecules reacted to different temperatures and what they found was quite surprising.
According to Maynard-Casely, nitrogen has two crystal structures based on the temperatures on Pluto. “The nitrogen story is really interesting because the molecules have the ability to cool into an ordered structure, which is the alpha nitrogen phase and at this point there is a big volume drop … Whereas at a slightly higher temperature, around 44 Kelvin [minus 380.47 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 229.15 Celsius], the nitrogen molecules are freely rotating in a plastic state.”
It’s incredible to think that anything can move around in such extreme temperatures but the methane and nitrogen glaciers on Pluto seem to prove that point.