New Horizons Finds Flowing Ice On Pluto?

One month has passed since New Horizons finally made its flyby of Pluto, limning the surface in spectacular definition with its Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). The best part of this having happened a month ago is that these following months may be the greatest treat of the entire ordeal, because only after New Horizons sifts through its data for weeks, only after NASA develops and analyzes received telemetry and data are we to see the secrets of Pluto’s surface for ourselves.


Recently, a new batch of close-ups was released by NASA which reveals evidence of eccentric ice flows across Pluto’s surface, which means the Earth is not the only body in this solar system with glacier-geology. New Horizon’s LORRI shows a major ice sheet that has glided over the dwarf planet’s surface in a way very similar to glacier movement on Earth.

Here on the 3rd rock from the sun, glaciers usually progress by surface flows round the bends of obstacles, toward the vertex of deepest depression, usually creating a sort of swirly surface, as viewed from above. Now these photos from New Horizons’ LORRI have shown us that such topological patterns are not unique to Earth.


Scientists believe that this glacier-like movement could still be in motion, but it is difficult to determine if this is the case from the photographs alone. The ice flow flows from the center of Sputnik Planum, a smooth, craterless plain which lies in “the heart of the heart” of Pluto. This region, estimated to be no more than 100 million years old (roughly 1.4 times as long ago as the extinction event of the dinosaurs), is not only young, but also probably still undergoing geological change.

heart of the heart of pluto sized

“We’ve only seen surfaces like this on active worlds like Earth and Mars,” pointed out mission co-investigator John Spencer of SwRI. “I’m really smiling.”


Ice on Pluto’s heart-shaped plain is composed of mostly nitrogen, but there are also rich traces of carbon monoxide and methane. Ralph, New Horizons’ other instrument, showed that carbon monoxide levels in the ice gradually increases as the device is pointed towards the center of Pluto’s heart.


In addition to eliminating Earth’s uniquity when it comes to glaciers, this recent discovery has led many to question the fundamentals of glaciers, such as whether glaciers of varying chemical compositions are still worthy of the designation “glaciers,” and whether the term can even signify extraterrestrial phenomena. But this isn’t an exercise in the philosophy of language, so we turn to the National Snow and Ice Data Center for a definition: Glaciers are an amalgam of fallen snow that’ve compressed into large, thickened ice masses over a good number of years. Since it is difficult to include nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ice into a list of phenomena formed by snow, both the media and scientists are perfectly happy using the term “glacier-like” to refer to the above described phenomena.