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Cracks on Pluto’s Moon Could Mean a Frozen Ocean Swirls At the Edge of Our Solar System!

Brutally reclassified for being the odd one out in 2006, the icy dwarf-planet Pluto no longer features in any of the primary school science textbooks. But in an interesting turn of events, the ex-planet is back in the news, for one of its moons may have some riveting tidings to offer.

In 2015, when NASA's New Horizons spacecraft visited Pluto and its large moon, Charon, the icy geological features on the latter shattered long-held beliefs about Charon being an inert ball of ice.

And now, new research suggests those fractures on Charon’s surface may have been caused by icy eruptions from a frozen ocean!



Delving into the depths of Charon’s cracks

Having toiled to pinpoint the source of cryovolcanic flows and fracture belts on Charon's surface, researchers from the Southwest Research Team finally have an answer.

Dr Alyssa Rhoden, team member and SwRI researcher, reveals: "A combination of geological interpretations and thermal-orbital evolution models implies that Charon had a subsurface liquid ocean that eventually froze."

The pressure exerted by the frozen ocean is believed to be responsible for the deep, elongated depressions or fractures seen on the moon's circumference. The team even modeled oceans of ammonia, water, and a mixture of two, only to find that different ocean compositions didn't substantially affect the results.

"When an internal ocean freezes, it expands, creating large stresses in its icy shell and pressurising the water below. We suspected this was the source of Charon's large canyons and cryovolcanic flows," Dr Rhoden explains.

An ocean within a thin icy shell

The team then looked for conditions that would enable the surface and subsurface water to link through the cracks, resulting in ocean-sourced cryovolcanism (extrusion of liquids and vapors of materials that would be frozen solid at the planetary surface).

And they concluded that a thin outer shell would be vital to make this phenomenon possible. Interestingly, this contradicts the existing theories that suggest a thick outer shell has enveloped the moon.

“Either Charon’s ice shell was less than 10 km thick when the flows occurred, as opposed to the more than 100 km indicated, or the surface was not in direct communication with the ocean as part of the eruptive process,” said Dr Rhoden.

“If Charon's ice shell had been thin enough to be fully cracked, it would imply substantially more ocean freezing than is indicated by the canyons identified on Charon's encounter hemisphere.”

While these inferences have been drawn from a model, the idea that Charon's cryovolcanism originates from a frozen ocean can only be confirmed if a future mission spots additional, more prominent extended features across the moon's hemisphere.

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