Pluto could have an ocean underneath its crust

An insulating layer of gas could support a warm subsurface ocean underneath Pluto’s icy crust.

Data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto in July 2015, was recently run through a computer simulation that provided evidence for the existence of gas hydrates, creating a greenhouse effect strong enough to maintain liquid water inside one of the coldest celestial bodies in our solar system.

The New Horizons spacecraft was the first to provide close-up images of the dwarf planet, and carried with it instruments to measure topology, solar winds, and more characteristics of Pluto that could help determine whether life exists or is possible there. New Horizons also mapped Sputnik Planitia, a white-colored ellipsoidal basin with a thinner ice shell than other places on the dwarf planet.

Researchers discovered that the only way a subsurface ocean could be kept liquid while also maintaining Pluto’s icy shell was the presence of gas hydrates, which are crystalline patterns of gas trapped within molecular water cages, due to their insulating properties. The most likely gas in the insulating layer is methane from Pluto’s rocky core, and the discovery of similar layers on other celestial bodies could mean that liquid oceans are much more common than previously thought. This has profound implications on the search for extraterrestrial life because it means planets previously considered inhospitable for life have now become points of interest for researchers.

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