Pluto's Heart-Shaped Basin: Reevaluating Its Origins

By Jurassic JennJun 17, 2024 14:01 PMScience
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Pluto's Heart-Shaped Basin
Pluto's Heart-Shaped Basin. Source: www.sciencenews.org

Recent research suggests that the heart-shaped basin on Pluto, known as Sputnik Planitia, may not harbor an ocean as previously believed. Instead, computer simulations propose an alternative hypothesis, indicating that a massive object approximately 730 kilometers in diameter, slightly larger than the asteroid Vesta, may have collided with Pluto billions of years ago. This collision resulted in the formation of Sputnik Planitia while leaving behind a rocky remnant, as detailed in a study published in Nature Astronomy on April 15, 2022. This was reported by SSPDaily.

Upon analyzing images captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft during its flyby in 2015, scientists observed the heart-shaped region situated three to four kilometers beneath Pluto's surface, filled with frozen nitrogen and equivalent in size to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Adeene Denton, a planetary scientist from the University of Arizona, hypothesizes that this peculiar feature is likely an impact basin, considering that it is the most plausible explanation for such a significant depression on a celestial body.

However, the positioning of the basin along Pluto's equator presents a quandary. When a rotating object experiences a substantial impact, it can cause unstable wobbling over millions of years, ultimately leading to a shift in the object's tilt. The enormous Aitken basin on the Moon, for example, currently resides near the lunar south pole due to a past collision. Pluto's heart-shaped basin, therefore, defies expectations.

Initially, some researchers theorized that the impact responsible for the heart-shaped feature also created a hidden subterranean ocean of liquid water. They suggested that this hypothetical ocean played a key role in maintaining Sputnik Planitia near the equator. However, the survival of such an ocean over geological timescales poses significant challenges, as Pluto's surface temperature plummets to a bone-chilling -230° Celsius, causing even the base of Sputnik Planitia to be far below the freezing point of water.

Hence, experts are now contemplating an alternative explanation: What if Pluto's heart-shaped basin is not linked to an underlying ocean at all? To explore this possibility, Denton and her team conducted computer simulations using different-sized rocky objects colliding with Pluto. Their findings propose an intriguing scenario; when a massive object roughly 730 kilometers across struck Pluto, the exterior vaporized, while the dense core of the impactor remained intact. Ultimately, this dense core settled beneath the surface of Sputnik Planitia, acting as a stabilizing influence responsible for the basin's location.

Carver Bierson, a planetary scientist from Arizona State University, who has no involvement in this study, praises the new research approach. He acknowledges the doubts raised by other scientists regarding the existence of an ocean on small, frigid Pluto, and thus appreciates the alternative model capable of explaining the properties of Sputnik Planitia. However, inevitably determining the accuracy of either hypothesis will likely necessitate sending an orbiter to Pluto capable of measuring the dwarf planet's gravitational field. Although proposed, such a mission is anticipated to require several decades to achieve its objectives.

In conclusion, as scientists unravel the mysteries of Pluto's heart-shaped basin, the possibility of it concealing a subterranean ocean gives way to the idea of a rocky remnant left behind by an impacted object. Further exploration and measurements are essential to settle the ongoing debate, guiding our understanding of this extraordinary dwarf planet.

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