Pluto: Subsurface Convection

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Pluto’s rich and unexpected surface features indicate the dwarf planet is still geologically active. This is one of the largest surprises of the New Horizons mission because it was assumed that Pluto was too small, too isolated, and too old for such activity. Instead, its cryovolcanoes and surface convection cells point to significant and vigorous convection in Pluto’s mantle, likely heated by the decay of radioactive elements in its core. The simulation above shows a representation of mantle convection on Earth, simulated over billions of years.

Mantle convection is described by the dimensionless Rayleigh number, which compares the effects of thermal conduction to those of convection. Above a fluid’s critical Rayleigh number, convection is the driving process in heat transfer. In Pluto’s case, if one assumes a mantle of pure water ice, the Rayleigh number is about 1600, barely enough to surpass the critical point where convection dominates. If, instead, one assumes a mantle containing 5% ammonia, the resulting composition has a Rayleigh number of more than 10,000–well past the critical point and large enough to support the vigorous convection necessary to explain Pluto’s surface features.  (Video credit: W. Bangerth and T. Heister; Pluto research credit: A. Trowbridge et al.; via Purdue University)

This concludes FYFD’s week of exploring Pluto’s fluid dynamics. You can see previous posts in the series here.

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