October 16, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Pluto Shock Rebounds

The first research paper from the New Horizons team focuses and amplifies the shock waves coming from the first images in July.

Before New Horizons got to Pluto, CEH predicted an active world (7/05/15, five days before the encounter).  Secular scientists predicted a cold, dead world: “many scientists had suspected that Pluto and other Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) have long been ‘dead’ internally,” Space.com admits today upon release of the mission team’s first research paper in Science. Finding that both Pluto and Charon both show recent active geology was a “big surprise” (cf. 7/15/15, 7/17/15, 9/17/15, 9/25/15) to the 150 scientists listed as authors of the paper.  Let’s listen to the gasps from the media:

  • Finding that Pluto is geologically active after 4.5 billion years — there’s not big enough typeface to write that in,” [Alan] Stern [principal scientist] said. “It’s unbelievable.” (Space.com)
  • How such bright surfaces can be maintained on Nix and Hydra over billions of years is puzzling, given that a variety of external processes (e.g., radiation darkening, transfer of darker material from Charon via impacts, impacts with dark Kuiper Belt meteorites, etc.) would each tend to darken and redden the surfaces of these satellites over time,” they write in the new paper. (Space.com)
  • “Parts of Pluto’s surface have almost no craters, meaning they are no more than a few hundred million years old. Yet the dwarf planet also has 3-kilometre-high ice mountains. The presence of both of these features implies that Pluto is geologically active, but where is the heat to drive that coming from?” (New Scientist)
  • “We knew Pluto’s surface was heterogeneous based on ground-based data. However, I was astonished to see such spectacular surface color and geological diversity,” said Silvia Protopapa [U of Maryland]. (PhysOrg)
  • [Alan Stern, principal investigator].  “The Pluto system is much more complex than I had expected. Pluto itself displays (such a diverse) range of geological landforms that it is unprecedented in the Solar System,” he explained. (BBC News).
  • “It certainly rivals the Earth and Mars, perhaps even occupies the number one spot for complexity of all the planets in the Solar System.” (Alan Stern, quoted by Pallab Ghosh for the BBC News).

My head hurts looking at the data,’ he [Alan Stern] confesses. The flyby continues and the data comes down every week, and we continue to get data and we continue to get surprises and it just gets better and better and it gets more and more perplexing.

  • “Scientists speculated before the flyby that there would be evaporation and condensation of nitrogen as the surface warmed and cooled. But most thought it would be a gentle process, and the apparent flows of nitrogen glaciers were a surprise.  ‘If that actually holds up – that is an absolutely fantastic thing,’ says Prof Fitzsimmons. ‘No-one had really predicted this.'” (BBC News)
  • “From the variety in Pluto’s geological landforms, to Pluto’s atmosphere, to its intriguing moons, New Horizons has revealed a degree of diversity and complexity on Pluto and its moons that few expected in the frigid outer reaches of the solar system.” (Southwest Research Institute press release)
  • “The Pluto system surprised us in many ways, most notably teaching us that small planets can remain active billions of years after their formation,” said Stern. “We were also taught important lessons by the unexpected degree of geological complexity that both Pluto and its large moon Charon display.” (SwRI)
  • “It’s Official: Pluto Is Even Weirder Than We Thought” (Michael Lemonick for National Geographic). “….a tortured, highly varied landscape that pointed to a living, geologically active world rather than an inert blob hovering at the frozen edge of the solar system.”
  • “Even now, three months after New Horizons’ close encounter, scientists are just beginning to get a handle on what’s going on with Pluto and it’s large, equally intriguing moon Charon. But what they know already, laid out in a new paper in Science, is impressive—and deeply perplexing.” (Nat Geo).  Speaking of the flat, icy plain named Sputnik Planum, the article states:

Amazing Facts“We can’t find a single crater,” says Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Given the chunks of rock and ice flying around in Pluto’s neighborhood, that can only mean one thing. “The area has been recently resurfaced,” Stern says—as recently as 100 million years ago, and perhaps even more recently than that.

That would only be possible if Pluto had a source of heat other than the Sun, whose energy at a distance of about three billion miles is vanishingly feeble. Elsewhere in the solar system, icy moons such as Jupiter’s Io and Saturn’s Enceladus—which spout volcanoes and geysers—are heated by friction caused by tidal forces as they orbit massive nearby planets. But Pluto, says Stern, “is out there all by its lonesome.” Charon and Pluto’s other moons don’t have sufficient mass to account for the planet’s heat.

  • After considering radioactivity as a heat source, Lemonick writes: “Radioactive heat, however, doesn’t explain the mountains at the edge of Sputnik Planum. At Pluto’s distance from the Sun, water ice is as hard as rock, and it takes a lot of energy to thrust it high above the surrounding terrain. “It’s not clear what their origin is,” says McKinnon, “but clearly it happened. Something created these. Right now, it’s still perplexing.” (Nat Geo)
  • “But the surprises have not stopped coming. As New Horizons streaks outward into the region of icy worlds known as the Kuiper belt, it is sending back the data stored during its encounter in a stream limited by distance and the power of its transmitter. Bit by bit the data are building up into ever-better images and measurements of Pluto and its moons, and the researchers are scrambling to keep up. ‘Every week, a lot of new data land, and our jaws are on the ground,’ Stern says.” (Eric Hand for Science Magazine)
  • “The first published scientific findings from NASA’s New Horizons mission, which flew past Pluto in July, confirm that the dwarf planet does not resemble any other single world in the Solar System. Instead, its wildly varying terrain is a crazy quilt of geological patterns and textures — copied, pasted and tweaked from other planets and moons.” (Nature)
  • “Pluto’s large moon Charon displays extensional tectonics and extensive resurfacing, as well as possible evidence for a heterogeneous crustal composition; its north pole displays puzzling dark terrain. The sizes of Pluto’s small satellites Nix and Hydra were measured for the first time, as were their surface reflectivities, which are puzzlingly higher than Charon’s.” (Science)
  • “The New Horizons encounter revealed that Pluto displays a surprisingly wide variety of geological landforms, including those resulting from glaciological and surface-atmosphere interactions as well as impact, tectonic, possible cryovolcanic, and mass-wasting processes. This suggests that other small planets of the Kuiper Belt, such as Eris, Makemake, and Haumea, could express similarly complex histories that rival those of terrestrial planets. Pluto’s diverse surface geology and long-term activity also raise fundamental questions about how it has remained active many billions of years after its formation.” (conclusion of official paper in Science)

The highest resolution images will start arriving in November.

Pardon our gloating, but science is supposed to involve prediction, isn’t it?  We were not surprised because we don’t believe Pluto is billions of years old.  The experts, though, are all flummoxed.  They admit openly that none of them expected these things.  They are perplexed how to account for all the young-looking phenomena. “There’s not big enough typeface to write that in.”

The main reason: they are professional moyboys, with sworn allegiance to A.S.S. with its Law of the Misdeeds and Perversions that demands nobody ever alter that assumed age for any reason, evidence be damned.

Storytelling mode is starting to kick in. To rescue the A.S.S. from getting kicked too hard, they are adding some hoc to cushion it. Maybe uranium is heating the icy plains. Maybe the mountains are floating around on nitrogen soup. Maybe craters vanish into the soup. Maybe an impactor came in recently to stir things up. Maybe the impactor that formed Charon was similar in composition to Pluto, but the ones that formed the small moons were different. Maybe the atmosphere is fed by an underground reservoir that cannot be detected. Maybe Pluto’s fairy borrowed terrain from Triton, Enceladus and Mars to create a crazy quilt.

This is known as Special Pleading.  As with lying, though, where subsequent lies have to be told to back up the first one, Special Pleading requires piling on more ad hoc conditions when the common-sense listener starts asking follow-up questions. Why does the radioactivity heat the plains, but doesn’t melt the ice mountains right next to them? How did a heavy element like uranium get to the pristine outer edges of the solar system, where everything is supposed to be volatile?

The most pressing question of all: Why must everybody be forced into believing Pluto is billions of years old?

The ad hoc cushioning is leaving a lot of soft tissue exposed.





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  • Jon Saboe says:

    When all else fails — add another epicycle…. Anything but change the paradigm.

  • Fitimtari says:

    Excellent roundup once again. Your reference to “Pluto’s fairy” inevitably reminds us of that good-for-a-laugh quote about astronomers “invoking the tooth fairy twice”, i.e. dark matter and dark energy. Well, professional ASStronomers might as well talk of invoking it three, four, five times with localised extra “dark energy” to power Io, Enceladus and now Pluto. It’s absolutely hilarious to see all these otherwise brilliant scientists and engineers rush straight into the trap. Can’t wait for November’s updates and more. Meanwhile the last word goes to Alan Stern – “It’s unbelievable”, referring to active geology after 4.5 billion years. The active geology is an observed fact, ergo it’s the billions of years that have just gone poof.

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