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Unlocking The Strange 'Snakeskin' Terrain Of The Dwarf Planet Pluto

First Posted: Jan 06, 2017 03:30 AM EST
Pluto
The strange "snakeskin" terrain spotted on Pluto was finally understood as ice ridges that are like the erosion-formed features called "penitentes."
(Photo : VideoFromSpace/YouTube screenshot)

The scientists understand now the strange "snakeskin" terrain also referred to as giant ice ridges spotted on the dwarf planet, Pluto. This was first identified by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on its epic Pluto flyby in July 2015.

The ice ridges are about 1,650 feet or 500 meters in height. It is higher than the Empire State Building and about 2 to 3 miles apart. The researchers said that the ice ridges are like the erosion-formed features called "penitentes" in the mountainous regions of the planet Earth.

The findings of the study were printed this week in the journal Nature. The researchers used a computer model to foresee how these features are shaped. The study suggests that Pluto's penitentes might be formed within the past few tens of millions of years. The features are named "penitentes" because they look like people on their knees doing penance for their sins, according to Space.com.

John Moores, the assistant professor of space engineering at York University and the lead author of the study, said that this gargantuan size is predicted by the same theory that explains the formation of these features on Earth. He further said that they were able to match the size and separation, the direction of the ridges, as well as their age. These are the three pieces of evidence that support the identification of these ridges as penitentes seen in a region of Pluto called Tartarus Dorsa.

The atmosphere plays a key role in the formation of the features. This is a process known as sublimation, in which a solid such as methane ice becomes a gas that skips the liquid phase, according to the team.

Moores explained that the identification of the ridges of Tartarus Dorsa as penitentes suggests that the presence of an atmosphere is necessary for the formation of penitentes, which would explain why they have not previously been seen on other airless icy satellites or dwarf planets. He further explained that the exotic differences in the environment give rise to features with very different scales. Meanwhile, the penitentes on planet Earth are much smaller, according to Fox News. 

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