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Pluto: What Lies In The ‘Heart’ Of The Dwarf Planet?

Pluto: What Lies In The ‘Heart’ Of The Dwarf Planet?

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First Posted: Sep 21, 2016 05:02 AM EDT
Pluto Tombaugh Regio
A detailed view of Tombaugh Regio; a constructed mosaic of monochrome images by New Horizons. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute / Wikimedia Commons CC0

A large heart shaped photo was captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on Pluto's surface during July 2015. Later, named Tombaugh Regio, the 1,200-mile formation was suggested to be a nitrogen ice reservoir that swirled out a polygonal patterned matter.  

NASA also noted that the heart of the icy dwarf was next to dark equatorial terrains, and a complex mottled area is located on its east. The interior of the icy heart was noticed to be featureless, an indication of a probable geologic process that was still underway. A study dwelled deeper into the ongoing process by running simulations, monitoring both 50,000 years in the past and the future to see what caused the heart shape to form and how it changed over time.

According to the researchers, the heart patterned formation was the result of highly volatile nitrogen ice that formed a permanent reservoir of ice, by getting accumulated in the basin. The study authors also added the Tombaugh Regio will, in the due course of time, eventually enlarge and shrink just like a beating heart, once the massive glacier that makes up the area changes shape.

On the western lobe of the Tombaugh Regio, lies a large frozen plain, which is known as the Sputnik Planum. The area has a smattering of mysterious polygonal shapes which measure around six to 38 kilometers in diameter. The origin of the numerous patterns, accrued by computer models to convection or swirling, occurs due to the rise and sink of a warm and cool matter. Incidentally, the inner part of Pluto is warmer in comparison to the surface due to the heat generated from a long present radioactive material.  "Nitrogen ice is not soft like a gummy bear is soft, but still more pliable than water ice on Earth, so it's convecting vigorously and forming these polygonal cells," said William McKinnon, planetary geophysicist and study author.

Scientists feel that the Sputnik Planum surface renews itself every half million years due to convection, an occurrence that also makes it among the youngest surfaces in the solar system. The findings also reinforce the belief that the icy dwarf is not cold and dead, but rather it is geologically active. In addition, researchers feel that the findings can also throw light on the behavior of other such planets that are located farther away from Pluto.

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