Planetary scientists have used a weather forecast model and computer simulations to discover that Earth and Pluto both sport ice blade formations, something we haven’t seen anywhere else in the universe. These amazing findings are published in Nature.
The structures are known as penitentes, as fields of them look like people doing penance, and they are formed by the erosion of bowl-shaped depressions with blade-like spires. On Earth, they can be up to 5 meters (16 feet) tall, while on Pluto they can get 100 times as tall.
“This gargantuan size is predicted by the same theory that explains the formation of these features on Earth,” lead author John Moores of York University, Toronto, said in a statement. “Exotic differences in the environment give rise to features with very different scales.”
These giant penitentes are not quick phenomena like their cousins on Earth, but take tens of millions of years to reach their current height.
The formations have been observed in the region informally named Tartarus Dorsa, which is located to the right of the heart of Pluto. The Plutonian environment is significantly different from our planet – it is colder, the Sun is dimmer, and the air is much thinner.
Also, the snow and ice on Pluto are not made of water, like on Earth, but of nitrogen and methane. It might appear weird that Earth models work on our planet as well as the distant world, but since the same physical laws apply across the cosmos, it’s not surprising that similar structures form on different celestial bodies.
“In fact, we were able to match the size and separation, the direction of the ridges, as well as their age: three pieces of evidence that support our identification of these ridges as penitents,” said Moores. “This test of our terrestrial models for penitentes suggests that we may find these features elsewhere in the solar system, and in other solar systems, where the conditions are right.”
It will definitely be interesting to look for the existence of similar formations on icy moons like Europa or Enceladus.