Pluto's heart was probably formed by an ancient collision – Sce

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A giant heart-shaped feature on Pluto's surface has intrigued astronomers since NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured it in a 2015 image. Now, researchers think they've solved the mystery of how individual hearts formed — and it could reveal new clues about the origins of dwarf planets.

The feature is called the Tombaugh Regio in honor of astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. But the heart is not all one piece, scientists say. And for decades, details of Tombaugh Regio's height, geological composition and distinctive shape, as well as its highly reflective surface that is brighter white than the rest of Pluto, have defied explanation.

A deep basin called Sputnik Planitia, which forms the “left lobe” of the heart, is home to most of Pluto's nitrogen ice.

The basin covers an area of ​​745 mi by 1,242 mi (1,200 km by 2,000 km), about one-fourth the size of the United States, but is 1.9 to 2.5 mi (3 to 4 km) lower than the main elevation. the surface of the planet. Meanwhile, there is a layer of nitrogen ice to the right of the heart, but it is much thinner.

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Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/NASA

The New Horizons spacecraft took a picture of Pluto's heart on July 14, 2015.

Through new research on Sputnik Planetia, an international team of scientists has determined that a cataclysmic event created the heart. After an analysis involving numerical simulations, the researchers concluded a planetary body about 435 miles (700 km) in diameter, or roughly twice the size of Switzerland from east to west, likely collided with Pluto early in the dwarf planet's history.

The findings are part of a study on Pluto and its internal structure published in the journal Monday Nature Astronomy.

Previously, the team studied unusual features throughout the Solar System, such as the far side of the Moon, which were likely formed by collisions during the early, chaotic days of the system's formation.

The researchers created numerical simulations using smoothed particle hydrodynamics software to model the potential impact of a theoretical planetary body colliding with Pluto under various scenarios for velocities, angles and compositions considered the basis for extensive planetary collision studies.

The results show that the planetary body likely crashed into Pluto at an oblique angle rather than head-on.

“Pluto's core is so cold that (the rocky body that collided with the dwarf planet) was very solid and did not melt despite the heat of the impact, and thanks to the impact angle and low velocity, the core of the impactor did not sink into Pluto's core, but remained intact as a splat on it. ,” said Dr. Harry Ballantyne, a research associate at the University of Bern in Switzerland, in a statement.

But what happened to the planet's body after it hit Pluto?

“Somewhere beneath Sputnik lies the remains of another massive body, one that Pluto never fully digested,” study co-author Eric Asfaug, a professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Arizona, said in a statement.

The teardrop shape of Sputnik Planetia is a result of the frigidity of Pluto's core, as well as the relatively low velocity of the impact, the team found. Other types of faster and more direct effects will create more symmetrical shapes.

“We're used to thinking of planetary collisions as incredibly intense events where you can ignore the details except for things like energy, momentum and density. But in the distant solar system, the velocities are much slower, and the solid ice is stronger, so you have to be more precise in your calculations,” Asfag said. . “This is where the fun begins.”

While studying the heart's features, the team also focused on Pluto's internal structure. An impact early in Pluto's history would have created a mass deficit, causing the Sputnik planitia to gradually shift to the dwarf planet's north pole as the planet formed. This is because the basin is less massive than its surroundings, according to the laws of physics, the researchers explained in the study.

However, Sputnik Planitia is closer to the dwarf planet's equator.

Previous research has suggested that Pluto may have a subsurface ocean, and if so, the icy crust in the Sputnik Planitia region would thin, creating a dense bulge of liquid water and causing mass to shift toward the equator, the study authors said.

But new research offers a different explanation for the trait's location.

“In our simulations, all of Pluto's primordial mantle is excavated by the impact, and as the core material from the impactor splats into Pluto's center, it creates a localized mass that could explain the equatorward shift of the surface without a sea, or at most a very thin one,” said study co-author Dr. Martin Zutzi, senior researcher in space research and planetary science at the University of Burns Institute of Physics.

Kelsey Singer, a principal scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and co-deputy principal investigator for NASA's New Horizons mission, who was not involved in the study, said the authors did a thorough job of modeling exploration and developing their hypotheses. Although he would have liked to see a “closer connection with geographical evidence”.

“For example, the authors suggest that the southern part of the Sputnik plain is very deep, but most geological evidence has been interpreted to point to the south being shallower than the north,” Singer said.

Researchers believe new theories about Pluto's heart could shed more light on how the mysterious dwarf planet formed. Pluto's origin remains unclear because it exists at the edge of the solar system and has only been studied by the New Horizons mission.

“Pluto is a huge wonderland of unique and interesting geology, so more creative hypotheses to explain the geology are always helpful,” Singer said. “What would help distinguish between the different hypotheses is more information about Pluto's subsurface. We can only get that by sending spacecraft missions into Pluto's orbit, possibly with a radar that can see through the ice.”

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