INNOVATION

Scientists Have Discovered How Pluto Got Its Giant Frozen Heart

Over time, the heart might actually have a 'beat'.

21/09/2016 7:07 PM AEST
NASA NASA / Reuters
Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 13, 2015, when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface and released on July 14, 2015. More than nine years after its launch, the U.S. spacecraft sailed past Pluto on Tuesday, capping a 3 billion mile (4.88 billion km) journey to the solar system’s farthest reaches, NASA said. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft's closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The color image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument that was acquired earlier on July 13. This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the "heart" which measures approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) are complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart's interior appears remarkably featureless - possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes. REUTERS/NASA/APL/SwRI/Handout ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

One of the first things NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft spotted on Pluto was its gigantic heart feature. Now, scientists believe they know how it formed. 

The dwarf planet’s heart-shaped region is actually a whole lot of ice sitting at the bottom of a basin almost 2 miles deep in the Tombaugh Regio, which was named for astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.

The heart shape is to a large degree created by highly volatile nitrogen ice that unavoidably accumulates in the basin and forms a permanent reservoir of ice,” Tanguy Bertrand, lead author of a new study published in the journal Nature, told ResearchGate.

Bertrand and his fellow researchers ran computer simulations of Pluto’s climate over the past 50,000 years and found that, over time, the basin trapped nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane. Since the atmospheric pressure was highest at the bottom of the basin, the nitrogen condensed into ice.

“With our model, we also predict that atmospheric pressure is currently at its seasonal peak and will decrease in the next decades, while seasonal methane frosts will disappear,” Bertrand told ResearchGate. 

That change could cause the heart-like feature to act like a real heart. 

The half-heart glacier lying inside is a really massive glacier, which is not impacted by the seasonal changes. It probably formed when the basin formed, and will remain there in the future,” Bertrand told Gizmodo. “However, it probably flows and retracts over a few hundreds of kilometers (like a heart beating) with time, eroding and shaping the mountains surrounding it.”

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