Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Cracks in Pluto's Moon Could Indicate it Once Had an Underground Ocean

16.06.2014

If the icy surface of Pluto's giant moon Charon is cracked, analysis of the fractures could reveal if its interior was warm, perhaps warm enough to have maintained a subterranean ocean of liquid water, according to a new NASA-funded study.

Pluto is an extremely distant world, orbiting the sun more than 29 times farther than Earth. With a surface temperature estimated to be about 380 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (around minus 229 degrees Celsius), the environment at Pluto is far too cold to allow liquid water on its surface. Pluto's moons are in the same frigid environment.


This artist concept shows Pluto and some of its moons, as viewed from the surface of one of the moons. Pluto is the large disk at center. Charon is the smaller disk to the right.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

Pluto's remoteness and small size make it difficult to observe, but in July of 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will be the first to visit Pluto and Charon, and will provide the most detailed observations to date.

"Our model predicts different fracture patterns on the surface of Charon depending on the thickness of its surface ice, the structure of the moon's interior and how easily it deforms, and how its orbit evolved," said Alyssa Rhoden of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"By comparing the actual New Horizons observations of Charon to the various predictions, we can see what fits best and discover if Charon could have had a subsurface ocean in its past, driven by high eccentricity." Rhoden is lead author of a paper on this research now available online in the journal Icarus.

Some moons around the gas giant planets in the outer solar system have cracked surfaces with evidence for ocean interiors – Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus are two examples. 

As Europa and Enceladus move in their orbits, a gravitational tug-of-war between their respective parent planets and neighboring moons keeps their orbits from becoming circular. Instead, these moons have eccentric (slightly oval-shaped) orbits, which raise daily tides that flex the interior and stress the surface. It is thought that tidal heating has extended the lifetimes of subsurface oceans on Europa and Enceladus by keeping their interiors warm.

In Charon's case, this study finds that a past high eccentricity could have generated large tides, causing friction and surface fractures. The moon is unusually massive compared to its planet, about one-eighth of Pluto's mass, a solar system record. It is thought to have formed much closer to Pluto, after a giant impact ejected material off the planet's surface. The material went into orbit around Pluto and coalesced under its own gravity to form Charon and several smaller moons. 

Initially, there would have been strong tides on both worlds as gravity between Pluto and Charon caused their surfaces to bulge toward each other, generating friction in their interiors. This friction would have also caused the tides to slightly lag behind their orbital positions. The lag would act like a brake on Pluto, causing its rotation to slow while transferring that rotational energy to Charon, making it speed up and move farther away from Pluto.

"Depending on exactly how Charon's orbit evolved, particularly if it went through a high-eccentricity phase, there may have been enough heat from tidal deformation to maintain liquid water beneath the surface of Charon for some time," said Rhoden. "Using plausible interior structure models that include an ocean, we found it wouldn't have taken much eccentricity (less than 0.01) to generate surface fractures like we are seeing on Europa."

"Since it's so easy to get fractures, if we get to Charon and there are none, it puts a very strong constraint on how high the eccentricity could have been and how warm the interior ever could have been," adds Rhoden. "This research gives us a head start on the New Horizons arrival – what should we look for and what can we learn from it. We're going to Pluto and Pluto is fascinating, but Charon is also going to be fascinating."

Based on observations from telescopes, Charon's orbit is now in a stable end state: a circular orbit with the rotation of both Pluto and Charon slowed to the point where they always show the same side to each other. Its current orbit is not expected to generate significant tides, so any ancient underground ocean may be frozen by now, according to Rhoden.

Since liquid water is a necessary ingredient for known forms of life, the oceans of Europa and Enceladus are considered to be places where extraterrestrial life might be found. However, life also requires a useable energy source and an ample supply of many key elements, such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. It is unknown if those oceans harbor these additional ingredients, or if they have existed long enough for life to form. The same questions would apply to any ancient ocean that may have existed beneath the icy crust of Charon.

This research was funded by the NASA Postdoctoral Program at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, administered by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and NASA Headquarters through the Science Innovation Fund.

Bill Steigerwald | Eurek Alert!
Further information:
http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/cracks-in-plutos-moon-could-indicate-it-once-had-an-underground-ocean/

Further reports about: Enceladus Greenbelt NASA Ocean Pluto Space observations oceans orbits structure

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht LIGO confirms RIT's breakthrough prediction of gravitational waves
12.02.2016 | Rochester Institute of Technology

nachricht Milestone in physics: gravitational waves detected with the laser system from LZH
12.02.2016 | Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V.

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Production of an AIDS vaccine in algae

Today, plants and microorganisms are heavily used for the production of medicinal products. The production of biopharmaceuticals in plants, also referred to as “Molecular Pharming”, represents a continuously growing field of plant biotechnology. Preferred host organisms include yeast and crop plants, such as maize and potato – plants with high demands. With the help of a special algal strain, the research team of Prof. Ralph Bock at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam strives to develop a more efficient and resource-saving system for the production of medicines and vaccines. They tested its practicality by synthesizing a component of a potential AIDS vaccine.

The use of plants and microorganisms to produce pharmaceuticals is nothing new. In 1982, bacteria were genetically modified to produce human insulin, a drug...

Im Focus: The most accurate optical single-ion clock worldwide

Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock which attains an accuracy which had only been predicted theoretically so far. Their optical ytterbium clock achieved a relative systematic measurement uncertainty of 3 E-18. The results have been published in the current issue of the scientific journal "Physical Review Letters".

Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock...

Im Focus: Goodbye ground control: autonomous nanosatellites

The University of Würzburg has two new space projects in the pipeline which are concerned with the observation of planets and autonomous fault correction aboard satellites. The German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy funds the projects with around 1.6 million euros.

Detecting tornadoes that sweep across Mars. Discovering meteors that fall to Earth. Investigating strange lightning that flashes from Earth's atmosphere into...

Im Focus: Flow phenomena on solid surfaces: Physicists highlight key role played by boundary layer velocity

Physicists from Saarland University and the ESPCI in Paris have shown how liquids on solid surfaces can be made to slide over the surface a bit like a bobsleigh on ice. The key is to apply a coating at the boundary between the liquid and the surface that induces the liquid to slip. This results in an increase in the average flow velocity of the liquid and its throughput. This was demonstrated by studying the behaviour of droplets on surfaces with different coatings as they evolved into the equilibrium state. The results could prove useful in optimizing industrial processes, such as the extrusion of plastics.

The study has been published in the respected academic journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).

Im Focus: New study: How stable is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet?

Exceeding critical temperature limits in the Southern Ocean may cause the collapse of ice sheets and a sharp rise in sea levels

A future warming of the Southern Ocean caused by rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere may severely disrupt the stability of the West...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Symposium on Climate Change Adaptation in Africa 2016

12.02.2016 | Event News

Travel grants available: Meet the world’s most proficient mathematicians and computer scientists

09.02.2016 | Event News

AKL’16: Experience Laser Technology Live in Europe´s Largest Laser Application Center!

02.02.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

LIGO confirms RIT's breakthrough prediction of gravitational waves

12.02.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

Gene switch may repair DNA and prevent cancer

12.02.2016 | Life Sciences

Using 'Pacemakers' in spinal cord injuries

12.02.2016 | Medical Engineering

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>