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Eris and Makemake, icy dwarf planets in our own solar system, may support life

In the remote expanses of the Kuiper Belt, far beyond Neptune’s orbit, lies a realm of icy dwarf planets where a recent study has unveiled unexpected warmth beneath their frozen surfaces.

Led by a team from the Southwest Research Institute, this research has provided compelling evidence of hydrothermal or metamorphic activity within Eris and Makemake, challenging our previous notions of these distant worlds as cold, inactive objects.

Beyond the frost lies geochemical warmth

Dr. Christopher Glein, a planetary geochemistry expert at SwRI and the lead author of the study, shared his insights into this surprising discovery.

“We see some interesting signs of hot times in cool places. I came into this project thinking that large Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) should have ancient surfaces populated by materials inherited from the primordial solar nebula, as their cold surfaces can preserve volatiles like methane,” Glein remarked.

“Instead, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) gave us a surprise! We found evidence pointing to thermal processes producing methane from within Eris and Makemake.”

Eris and Makemake, not much different in size from Pluto and its moon Charon, were thought to be relics from the solar system’s formation around 4.5 billion years ago.

Peering dep inside icy dwarf planets

The presumption was that, given their distance from the Sun, these Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) would be frozen in time. However, the JWST’s first observations of isotopic molecules on their surfaces have painted a different picture.

These observations, particularly the deuterium to hydrogen ratio in methane, offer a new perspective on the geological histories of Eris and Makemake.

Deuterium, a heavy form of hydrogen created in the Big Bang, and hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, combine in ways that can reveal much about a planet’s past.

“The moderate D/H ratio we observed with JWST belies the presence of primordial methane on an ancient surface. Primordial methane would have a much higher D/H ratio,” explained Glein.

“Our data suggest elevated temperatures in the rocky cores of these worlds so that methane can be cooked up. Molecular nitrogen (N2) could be produced as well, and we see it on Eris. Hot cores could also point to potential sources of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces.”

Subsurface oceans as pockets of potential life

This finding not only indicates internal heat. but also suggests the possibility of liquid water beneath the crusts of these icy dwarf planets.

The discovery aligns with a broader understanding gained over the past two decades: icy bodies in our solar system, like Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa, may harbor subsurface oceans, making them more dynamically evolved than previously thought.

The potential for liquid water enhances the prospect of habitability, making Eris and Makemake intriguing subjects for future research into the outer solar system’s capacity to support life.

Adding to the discussion, Dr. Will Grundy, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory and co-author of a companion study, noted the implications of their findings for planetary geology.

“If Eris and Makemake hosted, or perhaps could still host warm, or even hot, geochemistry in their rocky cores, cryovolcanic processes could then deliver methane to the surfaces of these planets, perhaps in geologically recent times,” said Dr. Grundy. “We found a carbon isotope ratio (13C/12C) that suggests relatively recent resurfacing.”

Redefining cold worlds

This research signifies a paradigm shift in how scientists view the Kuiper Belt’s icy worlds, proposing that they might be “warm at heart.”

The study not only sheds light on the internal processes of Eris and Makemake but also suggests similar geothermal gas formations on other celestial bodies like Saturn’s moon Titan.

Reflecting on the broader implications of this work, Glein expressed excitement about the future of Kuiper Belt exploration.

“Following the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, and with these discoveries, we’re seeing the Kuiper Belt as a lively place full of dynamic worlds,” he said.

Glein advocates for future missions to further investigate these findings and believes that the wonders of the Kuiper Belt await our exploration.

This leap in understanding underscores the importance of space telescopes like the JWST in unraveling the mysteries of our solar system’s outer reaches.

Much left to learn about icy dwarf planets

In summary, the intriguing discoveries about Eris and Makemake challenge our previous perceptions of the Kuiper Belt as a dormant region, revealing these distant worlds as dynamic entities with potential subsurface oceans and internal geochemical activity.

Through the lens of the James Webb Space Telescope, scientists have uncovered evidence of thermal processes beneath the icy surfaces, suggesting that these icy dwarf planets may harbor conditions conducive to life.

This paradigm shift enriches our understanding of the solar system’s outer reaches, piques scientific curiosity around the world, and propels future explorations aimed at unlocking the mysteries of these and other celestial bodies.

As we stand on the brink of new discoveries, the quest to explore the Kuiper Belt’s icy worlds promises to unravel more secrets, potentially redefining our search for habitability in the cosmos.

The full study was published in the journal Icarus.


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