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NASA Space

Tiny Pluto Big On Frozen Water Reserves 49

New submitter rmdingler writes that a new map created by NASA based on the New Horizons flyby of Pluto "shows much more frozen water than scientists initially expected." Using LEISA to photograph from 108,000 kilometers away, much more of the recently demoted planet's frozen surface liquid is water, rather than methane, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen as originally posited.
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Tiny Pluto Big On Frozen Water Reserves

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  • by jfdavis668 ( 1414919 ) on Sunday January 31, 2016 @11:30AM (#51408761)
    Water freezes at a much higher temperature than many of the other compounds. You think it would have frozen first and be buried under everything else. Some action must bring it back up and deposit it on the surface.
    • Read the article - much of it is buried under frozen methane, nitrogen, etc.
    • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Sunday January 31, 2016 @02:46PM (#51409637) Homepage

      The summary is lousy. It's not "much less water ice than thought", it's much less "than was previously known". It had been hard to detect the water ice through the frosts previously.

      It's always been expected that a large portion of Pluto's mass is water ice. Also, it was well known before NH arrived that any surface topography of significance would have to be from water ice, as the other ices are just too "soft" to hold up strong contours.

      As for water ice being buried, why would you expect that? Water ice is lighter than nitrogen and carbon monoxide ices. It basically "floats" on them. There seems to be a sort of N2/CO/CH4 "mantle" which is exposed to the surface (and convecting) at Sputnik (the point nearest Charon). Elsewhere, however, a water ice crust floats atop it, seemingly progressively thicker the further one gets from Sputnik/Charon.

      I find it interesting - perhaps coincidental, perhaps not - that Pluto is like our moon, with a crust thinner and more geologically active on the side of which it's tidally locked to its partner, and thicker/less active on the opposite side. If we can figure out Pluto's dynamics better, it might help us understand our own moon better.

      Pluto is a beautifully, fascinatingly weird place. There's some good evidence that entire water-ice floating mountains have washed ashore and collected on the shores of Sputnik - perhaps water ice from the deep depths. Certainly there are shorelines that have this appearance today, and we can see smaller water-ice chunks floating and stuck between the roiling convection cells. If one pictures rolling back the clock, Pluto started out very hot (alternatively with multiple periods of heat, such as during the formation and/or capture of Charon). The first things to condense out would have been rocks, such as silicates, with a water ice ocean and a nitrogen/methane/CO atmosphere. Then the water ice would have frozen. Then the gases would have frozen atop it. But then you have a situation where you have an extensive heavier layer over an even more extensive, lighter layer. So there may be potential for cycling. But it's hard to say, because different crystal forms in different temperature and pressure conditions have different densities.

      Charon also has a look of large chunks of water ice drifting around. But while Pluto has its active mantle exposed to space, Charon seems frozen in time. You can see structures that look like massive islands (or even continents) that have broken off from each other, drifted, then became frozen into place. And there's some crazy-massive rifting, as if some layers changed dramatically in size relative to others as they froze (Pluto too has rifting, but Charon's rifts are even more spectacular)

  • Consumables (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Sunday January 31, 2016 @11:30AM (#51408765)

    In space we seem to be finding water, water everywhere. And hydrocarbons, popping up in the most unexpected parts of the solar system. By the time our robots have mapped everything out, there won't be anything we will need to haul up from the terrestrial gravity well besides ourselves and the first iteration of tools-to-make-the-tools.

    • by rgmoore ( 133276 )

      It shouldn't be that surprising to see water and methane everywhere. After all, hydrogen is by far the most common element in the universe, and oxygen and carbon are also relatively common. Simple compounds of heavier elements with hydrogen should be among the most common things to see on planets (and dwarf planets and moons) that don't have strong enough gravity to keep hydrogen in their atmosphere.

      • by arth1 ( 260657 )

        After all, hydrogen is by far the most common element in the universe, and oxygen and carbon are also relatively common.

        Hydrogen is only around 3% of the universe, and growing scarcer all the time.
        And of normal baryonic matter, anything heavier than helium is really rare.

        • Current understanding is that matter is under 5% of the universe and the vast majority of that is hydrogen. from Wikipedia on hydrogen

          Its monatomic form (H) is the most abundant chemical substance in the Universe, constituting roughly 75% of all baryonic mass.

          The vast majority of the universe is thought to be composed of dark energy and dark matter, whatever those are.

        • by XXongo ( 3986865 ) on Sunday January 31, 2016 @02:18PM (#51409495) Homepage

          After all, hydrogen is by far the most common element in the universe, and oxygen and carbon are also relatively common.

          Hydrogen is only around 3% of the universe, and growing scarcer all the time.

          Two different things. Hydrogen comprises 75% by mass of the elements in the universe. http://www.webelements.com/per... [webelements.com]

          If you are saying it's only 3% of the universe, you must be including dark matter. But that's not an element.

          Planets don't, in general, contain dark matter, so the abundance of hydrogen relative to dark matter isn't really relevant to the amount of water found on Pluto and other solar system objects.

    • by plopez ( 54068 )

      We simply transport the water from Pluto to Mars. Like duh! how hard can that be?

      (In case you missed it that was sarcasm)

      • That direction is downhill...

      • I am not suggesting moving water for Pluto to any distant place, only thatPluto is yet another handy place where it can be found.

        Water for Mars will come from those handy snowballs that keep whizzing past the inner planets. Identify one going in basically the right direction, and nudge its eccentric orbital ellipse to collide with one limb of the planet.

        • by plopez ( 54068 )

          Could you post some calculations and a plan on how to do that? Perhaps using Halley's comet as an example as it's period is very "handy"?

    • Re:Consumables (Score:4, Interesting)

      by thinkwaitfast ( 4150389 ) on Sunday January 31, 2016 @04:08PM (#51410011)

      tools-to-make-the-tools

      humans got to today's level of technology starting with sticks and rocks for tools. The big jump however came with the lathe. Using a lathe, you can either build any tool known to man or the tool used to build any known tool known to man (a wafer processing machine for example). You can even construct a first lathe [amazon.com]using nothing more than some hand tools and a drill.

  • Clearly it is time to designate Pluto as a superfund site now that we have found such large quantities of dihydrogen monoxide [dhmo.org] on it.
  • From the summary:

    planet's frozen surface liquid is water, rather than methane, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen as originally posited.

    Dump the word liquid. It's both stupid and wrong.

    • And before anyone gets on my case, the word "liquid" is nowhere to be found in the original article.
    • I would've been willing to let it slide if they'd continued with "as opposed to Earth or the Moon, where most of the solid surface consists of frozen liquid silicates". Of course, then they might have realized how goofy it sounded.

  • by ledow ( 319597 )

    Does rather call into question the surveys we do of foreign systems.

    I mean, if we were surprised by how much water Pluto has, and Mars has recently changed in our opinion several times too, how we can pretend we're measuring the potential atmospheres or compositions of just about anything outside the solar system with any degree of accuracy?

    We have things SITTING on Mars and we're still not sure. So should we really be playing such guessing games at all?

    • This is science! Every fact is fact until it is not fact or the fact means something different that the fact meant previously. If you don't like that fact, stick with your religions. We are dealing with the truth here.

    • by XXongo ( 3986865 )

      I mean, if we were surprised by how much water Pluto has, and Mars has recently changed in our opinion several times too, how we can pretend we're measuring the potential atmospheres or compositions of just about anything outside the solar system with any degree of accuracy?

      The answer is, we haven't. There are proposals to measure atmospheres of exoplanets, but except for very exceptional cases, we haven't.

      There was never any question that Pluto had large amounts of water ice. All the small bodies we've seen in the outer solar system have-- and Uranus and Neptune are pretty much made of water-- so it's not a surprise Pluto has water ice. The only question is whether the water ice was buried under other stuff.

    • Re:Water (Score:4, Informative)

      by Rei ( 128717 ) on Sunday January 31, 2016 @02:54PM (#51409663) Homepage

      The summary is wrong. There is no surprise about how much water ice Pluto has, it's always been expected that it's predominantly water ice.

      The actual article linked says that the maps show more water ice than was previously known, not than previously thought. It's hard to see through the surface frosts to see the water ice. Mountains are impossible on Pluto without water ice (or other high compressive strength material - aka, not N2, CH4, CO, etc). The instant mountains were seen, we knew that the crust was mostly water ice. And even before then, we knew that - regardless of what its crust was made of - that Pluto is in large part water ice, due to its density (1,86g/cm3).

    • Cherry-pick the best possible cases for the latter among the billions of local stars and one can be found. Huge difference between measuring the solid surface and subsurface composition of a very dimly lit object versus measuring how a very strong light changes when going through a gaseous atmosphere.

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