OUTER PLANETS
Pluto's heart-shaped feature explained by international research team
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Pluto's heart-shaped feature explained by international research team
by Robert Schreiber
Berlin, Germany (SPX) Apr 16, 2024

An international team led by the University of Bern and the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS has uncovered the origin of Pluto's distinctive heart-shaped surface feature, Sputnik Planitia. The researchers used advanced numerical simulations to demonstrate that the shape resulted from a slow, oblique-angle collision with a large planetary body.

The discovery stems from investigations sparked by images from NASA's New Horizons mission, which revealed the heart-shaped structure in 2015. Dr. Harry Ballantyne, lead author from the University of Bern, explained that this area formed when Pluto collided with a celestial body approximately 700 km in diameter, initiating a significant alteration in Pluto's surface and internal structure. This finding challenges previous assumptions about Pluto's interior, suggesting the absence of a subsurface ocean.

The feature, formally known as Tombaugh Regio, has intrigued scientists due to its lighter color and lower elevation compared to surrounding areas. "The bright appearance of Sputnik Planitia is primarily due to white nitrogen ice, which likely accumulated quickly post-impact at this lower altitude," Dr. Ballantyne noted.

Dr. Martin Jutzi, who spearheaded the study, emphasized the importance of the impact's angle. "Our simulations indicate that the oblique angle and the relatively low velocity of the impact prevented the core of the impactor from merging with Pluto's core, instead forming a distinct layer on top of it," he said.

This research not only provides insight into the formation of Pluto's heart but also revises our understanding of its geological history. The impact likely occurred early in Pluto's history, contradicting the hypothesis of a subsurface ocean which would influence the feature's location due to gravitational forces.

Dr. Adeene Denton from the University of Arizona, a co-author of the study, is further exploring how these impacts influenced Pluto's evolution. "Understanding these dynamics offers a deeper glimpse into not only Pluto's past but potentially other celestial bodies in the outer Solar System," she added.

The findings were published in Nature Astronomy and can be found at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41550-024-02248-1.

Related Links
National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS
The million outer planets of a star called Sol

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