New Horizons researchers reveal how Pluto's signature heart was formed

Contributed by
Sep 22, 2016

Before this week's official explanation, I would have been perfectly content to believe that the heart-shaped feature on Pluto was actually a symbol of intergalactic peace left by an old alien dynasty. Damn you, science!  

According to a new scientific paper by Tanguy Bertrand and François Forget published in Nature, the unofficially-named Tombaugh Regio area is actually a hotbed of sprawling glaciers situated in the enormous basin, oblivious to the dwarf planet's seasonal fluctuations of methane frost.

The researchers compiled data and images from NASA's New Horizons July 2015 fly-by to piece together an environmental simulation that spans the last 50,000 years of Pluto's past. It revealed that the previously postulated reservoirs of subterranean frozen nitrogen were incorrect, and that Pluto's vast Valentine face was subject to extreme cold temperatures within that romantic depression.

Their model concludes that nitrogen ice accumulation in the heart's Sputnik Planum, the deepest, lowest latitudes of the western lobe, paired with the tri-fold increase in atmospheric pressure that has likely occurred there since 1988 is the smoking gun, singling out Pluto's complicated atmospheric–topographic processes as the probable origin of the recognizable.heart.

“Our knowledge of what is on Pluto’s surface does not change, but we know now why it is here and not there,” said Tanguy Bertrand, co-author of the report and a PhD student at Paris’ Université Pierre et Marie Curie.  "“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. 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.”

Though this explanation of Pluto's permanent reservoir of trapped nitrogen ice in the Tombaugh Regio (named for Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto) certainly isn't as sexy as ancient aliens, it does provide an interesting piece of the dwarf planet's geological puzzle of dynamic ices. Or do you still believe in my impossible theory?

(Via Gizmodo)