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Ridges of dune formations on the mountainous edge of Pluto's Sputnik Planitia ice plain. Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Despite its thinner atmosphere and lower gravity, Pluto is home to icy dunes resembling those on Earth, according to research published today in the journal Science.

The big picture: Pluto's surface is far more dynamic and diverse than researchers expected before NASA's New Horizon's spacecraft flew closely past it in 2015. The finding also suggests similarities between the dwarf planet and our own.

"It gives us further information about our own planet’s formation — the world we’re all standing on right now."
— Matt Telfer, geographer, University of Plymouth

What they saw: In July 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured images of Sputnik Planitia, a large plain of mostly nitrogen ice on the western side of Pluto's now-iconic heart. Amid the mountains and glaciers there, Telfer and colleagues spotted 357 pale ridges and six darker perpendicular streaks that are telltale characteristic of dunes.

  • The formations, which stretch across an area about 47 miles wide, are similar to those seen in satellite images of the Sahara.
  • "They are a weather vane left on the landscape that tells us which way the wind has blown," Telfer told Axios.

How they formed: Pluto's roughly 20 mph winds are strong enough to keep particles blowing but not strong enough to get them airborne in the first place.

  • It's possible that as Pluto's surface is warmed by the distant sun, frozen nitrogen particles turn from solid to gas, the researchers suggest. That gas then lifts off the surface, carrying the still frozen methane grains upward where the wind can then pick them up and move them.
  • But there are other possible processes to explain their formation, including a crystallization process they're still studying, Telfer says.

One more thing: Pluto's dunes are long transverse ridges, similar to some found on Earth, Mars, Titan and other bodies throughout the solar system.

"Despite radically different conditions or different processes, sometimes similar landscapes result," Telfer says. " [S]ome of these science fiction landscapes may not be that incredible."

Go deeper

Biden to sign 15 executive actions on Day One

President-elect Joe Biden. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to sign 15 executive actions upon taking office Wednesday, immediately reversing key Trump administration policies.

Why it matters: The 15 actions — aimed at issues like climate change and immigration — mark more drastic immediate steps compared with the two day-one actions from Biden's four predecessors combined, according to incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Off the Rails

Episode 7: Trump turns on Pence

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Elijah Nouvelage, Alex Wong/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 7: Trump turns on Pence. Trump believes the vice president can solve all his problems by simply refusing to certify the Electoral College results. It's a simple test of loyalty: Trump or the U.S. Constitution.

"The end is coming, Donald."

The male voice in the TV ad boomed through the White House residence during "Fox & Friends" commercial breaks. Over and over and over. "The end is coming, Donald. ... On Jan. 6, Mike Pence will put the nail in your political coffin."

Big Tech's post-riot reckoning

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The Capitol insurrection means the anti-tech talk in Washington is more likely to lead to action, since it's ever clearer that the attack was planned, at least in part, on social media.

Why it matters: The big platforms may have hoped they'd move to D.C.'s back burner, with the Hill focused on the Biden agenda and the pandemic out of control. But now, there'll be no escaping harsh scrutiny.