Study reveals how the famous ‘heart of Pluto’ produces wind, darkening its bright surface

A new study has revealed how Pluto’s famous heart-shaped nitrogen ice region creates wind in the dwarf planet’s thin atmosphere, causing a large amount of discoloration on its bright surface,media New Atlas reported. The study used information gathered by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during a close-range flight with Pluto in 2015, during which the probe captured stunning images and data treasures from distant alien worlds.

Study reveals how the famous 'heart of Pluto' produces wind, darkening its bright surface

At the heart of the new study is Tombaugh Regio, the heart of Pluto, which caught the public’s attention during New Horizons’ rapid exploration of Pluto in 2015. From a distance, it’s structurally like an oversized cartoon heart. Upon closer examination, the huge basin that formed the left “flap” of the heart shows that it is a geological miracle in itself. The basin is known as the Sputnik Plain.

The icy plane appears to be divided into multiple units and relatively free of impact craters. Analysis of the New Field of View data shows that Sputnik Planitia continuously refreshes its surface through the flow process, where hotter liquid nitrogen rises from below the surface and solidifies in the middle of the unit, while cooler nitrogen ice falls below the surface. New research, based on advanced computer modeling, has shed new light on how this unusual landscape interacts with its surroundings.

According to the team behind the new study, a thin layer of surface nitrogen is evaporated from Sputnik Planitia every day and then produced in the high-altitude atmosphere. When the temperature drops at night, the nitrogen drops and freezes again. This periodic evaporation and resettlement of matter is likened to the beating of a heart, and each time it beats, the resulting atmospheric disturbance causes the nitrogen wind to travel across the planet’s surface.

The team obtained data collected by New Horizons on Pluto’s topography and ice distribution and conducted computer simulations of potential weather cycles to see how circulating gases affect surface features.

Scientists have found that nitrogen from the ice sheet evaporates to the north and moves south wards and settles, triggering winds in the west. Surprisingly, most of the time, the large air currents that are prevalent 4 km above Pluto’s surface are the opposite of the dwarf planet’s eastward spin. This is a rare atmospheric process called retro-rotation.

During the simulation, the scientists also found another relatively strong wind current that crossed the western edge of the satellite Planitia near the ground. The group’s authors say the air flow reflects a similar wind, blowing across the eastern edge of Asia and returning to Earth.

The researchers found that the large aircurrents described in the simulation could explain the differenceins in the color and composition of the ice located in the western part of Sputnik Planitia. When the wind blows westward, it may send heat out of the atmosphere, which then comes into contact with ice, allowing it to sublimate faster and reduce reflectivity. In addition, the wind may also carry dark materials, which are subsequently deposited in the stripes on the surface.

Tanguy Bertrand, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and lead author of the study, said: “Sputnik Planitia’s climate for Pluto may be as important to Pluto as the ocean-to-Earth climate. Without Sputnik Planitia – without the heart of Pluto – you wouldn’t have had the same cycle. “

A paper on the study has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.