This is a significant discovery, because dunes are only produced when specific conditions occur, and recognition of these conditions on Pluto suggests that the minor planet might be much more active than previously envisaged.
Dune systems like those on Pluto turn out to be common throughout the solar system. It could have been made from lumps of ice with a chemical composition closer to that of our Sun.
The research is yet another moment to reflect on just how surprisingly diverse Pluto has been revealed to be.
The new discovery "shows us that Pluto's atmosphere and surface are interacting in a way that geologically/geomorphologically alters the surface", said study lead author Matt Telfer, a lecturer in physical geography at the University of Plymouth in England. Generally speaking, dunes are sculpted by winds and Pluto's atmosphere, 1,000 times thinner than ours, was thought to be too weak to generate strong enough gusts for this goal.
Pluto, smaller than Earth's moon with a diameter of about 1,400 miles (2,380 km), orbits roughly 3.6 billion miles (5.8 billion km) away from the sun, nearly 40 times farther than Earth's orbit, with a surface marked by plains, mountains, craters and valleys.
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Nitrogen sublimation would be powerful enough to fling up methane grains, Telfer said, providing Pluto's winds with the airborne ingredients for a dune.
"We understand now that this celestial body on the outskirts of the Solar system is not a frozen planetoid - actually is a dynamic world that is constantly changing and to this day", says Telfer.
"On Earth, you need a certain strength of wind to maintain transport", said co-author Eric Parteli.
He noted there are dunes on the scorching surface of Venus under a dense atmosphere and out in the distant reaches of the solar system at minus 230 degrees Celsius (minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit) under a thin atmosphere.
The scientists estimate that these dunes formed sometime in the last 500,000 years, due to their undisturbed form and the historically convective glacial ice beneath it.
Personally, I find it remarkable every time we get to see familiar Earthly features on alien worlds, be them tall mountains, vast deserts, or undulating canals. The newly identified features look a lot like wind-sculpted dunes, and that's exactly what they are, according to the study team. An astronomer unrelated to the study told Gizmodo that there needs to be higher-resolution images of the structures to determine whether or not they may be dunes. It's expected to zip past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule - orbiting 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto - on January 1.