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Geologically Diverse Pluto and Charon: Implications for the Dwarf Planets of the Kuiper Belt

  • Moore, Jeffrey M.
  • McKinnon, William B.
Published Article
Annual Reviews
Publication Date
May 30, 2021
DOI: 10.1146/annurev-earth-071720-051448
Annual Reviews


Pluto and Charon are strikingly diverse in their range of geologies, surface compositions, and crater retention ages. This is despite the two having similar densities and presumed bulk compositions. Much of Pluto's surface reflects surface-atmosphere interactions and the mobilization of volatile ices by insolation. Abundant evidence, including past and present N2 ice glacial activity, implies that Pluto has undergone substantial climate evolution. An ancient impact basin contains a massive, convectively overturning N2 ice reservoir, whose position and surrounding tectonics suggest a subsurface ocean. Aligned blades of methane ice hundreds of meters tall, found only at high altitude, likely cover much of Pluto's low latitudes and may be a consequence of obliquity variation–driven volatile migration. Multikilometer-high possible cryovolcanic constructs and apparent fissure eruptions indicate relatively late endogenic activity on Pluto. Pluto's range of surface ages is extreme, whereas Charon's surface, while old, displays a large resurfaced plain and a globally engirdling extensional tectonic network attesting to earlier endogenic vigor. ▪ The vast N2 ice sheet Sputnik Planitia controls Pluto's atmosphere and climate, comparable in importance with the role of Greenland and Antarctica on the climate of Earth. ▪ Spectacular evidence for erosion such as now-unoccupied glacial valley networks implies a vigorous early climate, and more widespread N2 ice glaciation, on Pluto. ▪ Geological activity on both bodies requires or required sustained internal heat release and suggests a past (Charon) or present (Pluto) ammoniated, subsurface ocean. ▪ The varieties of geologic experience witnessed on Pluto and Charon should play out among the many and varied dwarf planets of the Kuiper belt.

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