Widespread Water Ice Discovered On Pluto

Using the Ralph Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) – a short wavelength, infrared, spectral imager aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft – scientists have uncovered widespread, exposed water ice across the dwarf planet, more than was previously estimated.

“Water ice is Pluto’s crustal bedrock, the canvas on which its more volatile ices paint their seasonally changing patterns,” said NASA scientists.


More prevalent water ice is exposed in the latest New Horizons map of Pluto. Image credit: NASA

The new map is an improvement on a previous one that wasn’t sensitive enough to distinguish water ice in high methane areas.

The more advanced technique, making use of LEISA, involved modeling Pluto’s water and exotic ices (nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices) all together. By uncovering all the types of ice, scientists were more easily able to identify the water ice.

Subsequently, the new map shows that exposed water ice is much more widespread than scientists had presumed.

Interestingly, the map shows little to no water in Sputnik Plane (the western area of Pluto’s heart) and Lowell Regio (north region). It appears that in these regions Pluto’s water ice is hidden beneath thick layers of exotic ices.

The map also shows patches of water ice on the easterly portion of Pluto’s heart, possibly indicating the presence of an unknown geological phenomena. Vast concentrations are also found in the south-west.

Somewhat surprisingly, there wasn’t any meaningful concentration of water ice where scientists believed there may be cryovolcanos on Pluto (in the south at the tip of Pluto’s heart). However, this map only identifies exposed, surface water ice, so there’s still hope for the cryovolcano theory.


Possible cryovolcanos in the south on Pluto. Image credit: NASA

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is currently on course to fly by Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, on January 1st, 2019. Right now, it’s approximately 3.3 billion miles (5.31 billion km) from Earth in healthy condition with all systems go.

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Categories: Space

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