Although temperatures on Pluto's surface hover around -230 °C, but researchers have long wondered whether the dwarf planet might boast enough internal heat to sustain a liquid ocean under its icy exterior.
Guillaume Robuchon and Francis Nimmo at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have calculated that the presence of an ocean depends on two things: the amount of radioactive potassium in Pluto's rocky core, and the temperature of the ice that covers it.
Density measurements suggest a rocky core fills 40 per cent of the dwarf planet's volume. If the core contains potassium at a concentration of 75 parts per billion, its decay could produce enough heat to melt some of the overlying ice, which is made of a mixture of nitrogen and water.
It should have at least that much potassium and probably more, says William McKinnon at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, who points out that Earth, which probably formed with less of the volatile element due to its closer distance to the sun, has 10 times that concentration in its core.
Heat from Pluto's core will trigger convection in the surrounding ice, and if the ice churns too quickly, the heat will simply escape into space before it can do much melting. If it flows substantially more slowly than Antarctic glaciers on Earth, however, then the top 165 kilometres of ice could provide enough insulation for a liquid ocean of the same depth to exist below, the team concluded.
The viscosity of the ice depends on the size of individual ice particles, with smaller grains flowing more easily. There is no way to measure this from Earth, but Pluto's shape could reveal evidence of an ocean, the team says. Pluto's spin is slowing down due to tugs from its large moon Charon. Fast-spinning objects bulge out at their equator, but a soft interior would allow the world to relax into more of a sphere as its spin slows down. NASA's New Horizons probe will image the dwarf planet's shape when it flies past in 2015.
"It's very exciting to think that these dwarf planets could have astrobiological potential," says New Horizons lead scientist Alan Stern.
Provided by The Daily Galaxy - NASA and newscientist.com