This Giant Ice Volcano on Pluto is All Wright
This bumpy wrinkled pucker is actually an enormous ice volcano — i.e., a cryovolcano — on the surface of Pluto, imaged by the passing New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. Informally called Wright Mons, the feature is about 90 miles (150 km) across and 2.5 miles (4 km) high, about as high as some of the tallest Alps. The entire volcanic mountain spans an area half the width of the state of Massachusetts!
See the region in context on a global view of Pluto below:
The fact that there is only one visible impact crater on Wright Mons (to the upper right of the central “caldera” in the top image) indicates that the feature is relatively young, like the surrounding terrain. If this is a cryovolcano, it was likely active not that long ago in the Solar System’s history!
What is a cryovolcano? It’s sort of like a regular terrestrial volcano but instead of molten silicate rock (lava) it erupts with slushy ices…what we’d call water, really, but also other exotic liquid substances like methane, nitrogen, and carbon monoxide. These are all gases at surface Earthly temperatures and pressures but somewhere like Pluto, where it’s 380 degrees below zero (F), those substances are typically frozen solid like rock (and even in “molten” state they’re still very cold!)
Wright Mons sits at the southwestern edge of the bright “heart” feature first seen as New Horizons approached Pluto in July 2015. Called Sputnik Planum, this reflective region is a patchwork of finely-textured nitrogen ice flows that’s conspicuously lacking in craters. Scientists suspect this indicates an ongoing process of slow-motion “cryoconvection” that carries slushy nitrogen and methane up from a warmer interior to the upper crust, where it freezes solid and renews the surface. If this is the case, the surface around Sputnik and Wright could be a mere 10 million years old… by comparison, many of the features found on our Moon are over 2–3 billion years old. Read more here.
These high-resolution images were acquired by the New Horizons spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015, from a range of about 30,000 miles (48,000 km). It resolves features as small as 1,500 feet (457 m), and the entire inset scene is 140 miles (230 kilometers) across.
Source: New Horizons/JHUAPL