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.”