Pluto's 'Heart' Has Mysterious, Floating Hills

First Posted: Feb 04, 2016 03:50 PM EST

Pluto's "floating hills" are getting a lot of attention. Pluto's nitrogen ice glaciers might be transporting some interesting cargo - a vast number of isolated hills, which might be fragments of water ice from the dwarf planet's surrounding uplands. These hills measure one to several miles across and are found in the vast ice plain of Sputnik Planum, which is also known as Pluto's "heart," according to a NASA report.

These hills are most likely small versions of the larger mountains on the western border of Sputnik Planum. Since water ice is less dense than nitrogen-dominated ice, researchers predict that these water ice hills might be floating in a sea of frozen nitrogen and they move over time similarly to icebergs in the Arctic Ocean on Earth.

The hills are most likely made up of "rugged uplands" which were detached and dispersed by nitrogen glaciers into Sputnik Planum. Chains of drifting hills are formed along the glaciers' flow paths. As the hills enter Sputnik Planum's cellular terrain, they face motions of nitrogen ice and they are forced into the edges of the cells. These hills gather in clusters, where they range up to 12 miles across.

The Challenger Colles region in the image contains a massive number of these hills, which are 37 by 22 miles. The image was captured with the New Horizons' Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) instrument at a range of 9,950 miles.

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