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BBC

Underground Oceans on Pluto Could Support Life, Says Brian Cox

PETER DOCKRILL
1 SEP 2015

Thanks to NASA’s history-making New Horizons mission we now know more about Pluto than ever before, including how its surface is dominated by icy plains and mountains.

But while the dwarf planet’s inhospitably frosty exterior would suggest that it’s highly unlikely for life to exist on its surface, the same can’t be said for what’s hiding underneath. According to British physicist Brian Cox, Pluto could yet support life forms, with the possibility of organisms living under the planet’s outer crust in temperate underwater oceans.

 

“[The New Horizons probe] showed you that there may well be a subsurface ocean on Pluto, which means — if our understanding of life on Earth is even slightly correct — that you could have living things there,” Cox told The Times.

Many geographical details gleaned from New Horizons’ Pluto flyby surprised scientists, such as the discovery of flowing ice and epic ice mountains standing as high as 3,500 metres.

“The bedrock that makes those mountains must be made of H2O, water ice,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, shortly after the probe made its flyby. “We see water ice on Pluto for the first time. We can be very sure that the water is there in great abundance.”

NASA is still receiving data from the probe, and with scientists only having seen about 5 percent of what it’s collected, there’s still plenty left to find out about Pluto. But right now, it’s impossible to know if any of the new data will reveal enough about the temperature of Pluto’s water environments to support Cox’s speculation.

And while it’s certainly possible that life could exist in the unseen watery environments beneath Pluto’s top surface, they’re likely to be incredibly simple life forms, such as single-celled organisms, says Cox.

“What science is telling us now is that complex life is probably rare,” he told The Times. “We’re physically insignificant and yet probably very valuable.”