American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. Eighty-five years later, his heart still beats out there, four billion miles from Earth in the Kuiper Belt. Today, NASA has released new, high-resolution images of Pluto’s giant, heart-shaped plain, informally named Tombaugh Regio (the Tombaugh Region). The discovery of this craterless section of Tombaugh Regio — dubbed “Sputnik Planum” after Earth’s first artificial satellite — is exciting, and confusing. In science, the two feelings are inseparable.
“This terrain is not easy to explain,” said Jeff Moore, head of New Horizon’s Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team team at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in a press release. “The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.”
What looks like the veins of Pluto’s heart are hills and troughs bordering “irregularly shaped” sections of the surface. And that’s the interesting part. A dwarf planet as old as Pluto should have some pretty recognizable signs of impact…everywhere. The fact that the heart of Pluto’s heart does not suggests that the body is still geologically active. The plains appear less than 100 million years old.
Scientists are now suggesting that this supposedly “dead” planet may be contracting and expanding its surface, forming cracks and crevices like drying mud. It could even be experiencing convection heating, as a surface layer of frozen carbon monoxide shifts below an atmosphere of nitrogen and methane, driven by heat from the dwarf planet’s interior. A dead planet it is not.
Just in the last four days we’ve learned what Pluto really looks like, that it’s larger than we expected, that it has icy mountains, and one of its moons has a space Mordor. Over the next year, the New Horizons spacecraft will continue to beam back the wealth of data from its historic flyby. All the while, Pluto’s heart will be beating.