A whiff of ammonia in reddish ices on Pluto may be evidence of recent geological activity on the dwarf planet, with liquid water spewing out from Pluto’s depths like molten lava would on Earth, a new study finds.
These findings suggest that Pluto may harbor at least some features favorable to the evolution of life, researchers said.
Scientists analyzed data that NASA’s New Horizons probe gathered during its flyby of the dwarf planet in 2015. In this data, they found evidence of ammonia on Pluto’s surface in areas that previous research suggested had experienced tectonic activity.
“In recent years, ammonia has been a bit like the ‘holy grail’ of planetary science,” study lead author Cristina Dalle Ore, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, told Space.com. One reason for this is that ammonia is a key ingredient in chemical reactions underlying life as we know it, “and therefore, when found, it flags [the presence of] an environment that is conducive to life. This does not mean that life is present — and we have not yet found it — but it indicates a place where we should look.”
Ammonia “is a fragile molecule and gets destroyed by ultraviolet irradiation as well as cosmic rays,” Dalle Ore said. “Therefore, when found on a surface, it implies that it had been emplaced there relatively recently, some million years before [being found].”