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20 September 2016

Pluto's Frozen Heart has a Beat

Pluto, the dwarf planet, has been a source of mystery for years. Pictures of the wee planet have been fuzzy at best since it lives something like 4.67 billion miles away from our blue one. In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft completed its 10-year-mission to the far reaches of our solar system to do a fly-by of Pluto. Alas, they’ve discovered the icy sphere in glorious 1080p, and taken some pretty sweet pictures to boot.

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The vaguely heart-shaped region near the bottom is known as the Sputnik Planum, a craterless plain which also goes by the Tombaugh Region. It spans 745 miles (1,200 kilometres) across the planet surface. New Horizons, with a decade’s worth of research under their belts, have spent a fair bit of time studying the unusual region.

Beneath the surface, Pluto’s heart is full of glaciers composed of nitrogen ice. The origins of the glacial heart were unknown, until researchers Tanguy Bertrand and Francois Forget’s paper in Nature.  Using a decade’s worth of analysis, the researchers constructed an environmental simulation for the last 50,000 years of the dwarf planet’s existence. What they discovered disproved the standing theory that a vast reservoir of ice exists beneath Pluto’s surface. In fact, the model has shown that deep basins on the planet surface routinely experience cold temperatures and frosts of methane. These qualities have directly attributed to the glacier’s formation. However, the model has figured that the seasonal frosts will disappear within the next decade.

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute says, “Sputnik Planum is one of the most amazing geological discoveries in 50-plus years of planetary exploration, and the finding by William B. McKinnon, who led the study, and others on our science team that this vast area – bigger than Texas and Oklahoma combined – is created by current day ice convection …”

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Studies carried out analysing the Sputnik Planum have found that the convection causes what looks like a beat to resonate throughout the region (Washington University has done one study, Purdue University has done another). The beating, aside from animating the heart-shape in the most perfect way, keeps the area “young,” spreading fresh nitrogen ice with each beat. Every 500,000 to one million years, the Sputnik Planum is completed covered with new ice. This ice fills in any new craters, according to National Geographic. McKinnon reckons that “If we were to come back in 100,000 years, the pattern would be markedly altered.”

Across the region, a polygonal pattern appears almost like veins across the beating heart. The Purdue paper has suggested that the veins signify warmer nitrogen ice below the surface. These shapes, like the heart, will shift with each beat. Scientists have known that Pluto was geologically active, but had no concrete explanation to explain it. Thanks to the dedication and perseverance of the New Horizons team, we now have an answer.

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).