A “beating heart” of frozen nitrogen monitors Pluto’s winds and may give rise to features on its surface, following new research.
Pluto’s famous heart-shaped structure, called Tombaugh Regio, quickly became well-known after NASA’s New Horizons mission recorded footage of the planetoid planet in 2015 and revealed it is not the barren world scientists thought it was.
Now, new analysis exhibits Pluto’s famed nitrogen heart guidelines its atmospheric circulation. Uncovering how Pluto’s atmosphere behaves gives scientists another place to match to Earth. Such judgments can pinpoint both similar and distinctive options between Earth and a dwarf planet billions of miles away.
Nitrogen gas—an element present in air on Earth—comprises most of Pluto’s thin atmosphere, together with small amounts of CO2 and the greenhouse gas methane.
Frozen nitrogen covers a part of Pluto’s surface in the form of a heart. Through the day, a thin layer of this nitrogen ice warms and becomes vapor. At night, the vapor compresses and once again forms ice. Each order is like a heartbeat, pumping nitrogen winds across the dwarf planet.
A new study in AGU’s Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets explains this cycle pushes Pluto’s environment to flow in the opposite direction of its spin—a singular phenomenon named retro-rotation. As air whips near the surface, it transports heat, grains of ice, and haze particles to create dark wind bursts and plains throughout the north and northwestern regions.
Most of Pluto’s nitrogen ice is separated to Tombaugh Regio. Its left “lobe” is a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) ice sheet located in a 3-kilometer deep basin called Sputnik Planitia—an area that holds most of the tiny planet’s nitrogen ice as a result of its low elevation.