Pluto Has a Nitrogen Heartbeat
By Theresa Machemer/Smithsonianmag.com
Pluto has a heartbeat of sorts, according to a new study from NASA’s New Horizons team.
Each day, sunlight hits the Sputnik Planitia basin—the left side of the heart—and nitrogen ice vaporizes. At night, Pluto’s temperature drops, and the vaporized nitrogen condenses back to ice. The cycle repeats every Plutonian day, which is about six and a half Earth days long, and powers the winds that shaped the dwarf planet’s landscape, per the study published on February 4 in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
“Before New Horizons, everyone thought Pluto was going to be a netball—completely flat, almost no diversity,” NASA astrophysicist and planetary scientist Tanguy Bertrand say in a statement. “But it’s completely different. It has a lot of different landscapes and we are trying to understand what’s going on there.”
Humanity got its best look at Pluto in 2015 when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sent back images of craters, glaciers, plains, and dunes. The photographs showed Pluto’s landscape surrounded by the thin haze of its mostly-nitrogen atmosphere.
The smooth features of Sputnik Planitia’s 2-mile-deep basin caught planetary scientists’ eyes that July.