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A surprise inside dwarf planets – “Hot times in cold places”

A surprise inside dwarf planets – “Hot times in cold places”

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Researchers examined the surfaces of dwarf planets and made an unexpected discovery that may indicate the presence of liquid water.

SAN ANTONIO – Eris and Makemake are two dwarf planets located in the Kuiper Belt. Methane gas has now been found on its surface, a clear indication of rising temperatures at its core. The geochemistry of dwarf planets is the focus of research by a team led by the Southwest Research Institute, which is now in the research phase. Stady I mentioned surprise.

Cold crust, hot core: study by Iris and Makemake

The Kuiper Belt is a flat, ring-shaped region in the solar system, located outside the orbit of Neptune, and containing more than 70,000 objects. These objects are called the Kuiper Belt. Among them are the dwarf planets Eris and Makemake, which are similar in size to Pluto and its moon Charon. Because of their great distance from the sun, they were thought to be cold and dead objects. But the study found isotopic molecules on its surface for the first time. These provide information about the evolution of celestial bodies.

A representation of Makemake, one of the dwarf planets under investigation that has a surprisingly hot core © PandorumBS/Imago

“We see interesting signs of hot spells in cold places,” said Christopher Glenn, lead author of the study. “At the beginning of the project, I thought that the surfaces of large objects in the Kuiper Belt were covered with material inherited from the primordial solar nebula, because their cold surfaces could sustain volatile gases such as methane. Instead, the James Webb Space Telescope gave us a surprise! We have found evidence pointing to thermal processes that produce methane within Iris and Makemake.

The chemical ratio provides information about the history and habitability of dwarf planets

The team examined the surface composition of dwarf planets. They focused in particular on the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in methane. The formation provides information about the origin, geological history, and evolutionary paths of hydrogen-containing compounds. “The ratio indicates a geochemical composition of the methane deep down,” says Glenn. “Our data show higher temperatures in the rocky core of these worlds, which is how methane can form. […] Hot cores could also be an indicator of potential sources of liquid water beneath their icy surface.

Signs of subsurface oceans have been found on many icy moons such as Saturn's moon Enceladus and Jupiter's moon Europa. Flowing water is the main criterion for assessing the habitability of a planet. If Eris and Makemake are habitable, they represent the furthest worlds in the solar system where life could exist. Glenn is excited about this discovery: “It is not too early to think about sending a spacecraft to a celestial body to put the data from the James Webb Space Telescope into a geological context. I think we will be surprised at the wonders that await us there!” (no)