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Heart on Pluto. Scientists have solved its mystery

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The characteristic heart-like mark on Pluto's surface was most likely caused by a collision with another celestial body. It happened when the dwarf planet was still young. The unusual manner of collision explains both the shape and the seemingly impossible position of the structure.

Pluto, a dwarf planet at the edge of the solar system, holds many secrets. One of the most interesting is related to the characteristic heart-shaped pattern on its surface. Scientists from the University of Bern and the University of Arizona decided to take a closer look at this structure, scientifically called Tombaugh Regio, and how it may have formed.

Slow collision

The authors of the article, which appeared in Nature Astronomy, noticed that the shape of the western part of the heart, also called Sputnik Planitia, resembles an unusual impact crater. This area is slightly lower than the rest of Pluto's surface. The researchers modeled collisions between Pluto and a hypothetical impactor until they obtained a crater with parameters consistent with the object.

The simulations showed that Pluto could have collided with a celestial body with a diameter of over 640 kilometers. The impact occurred at a shallow angle and relatively low speed, which would explain Sputnik Planitia's unusually elongated shape. As scientists explained, such a gigantic impact probably took place very early in the history of the dwarf planet.

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– Pluto's core is so cold that its rocks did not melt despite the heat released during the collision, and the impactor's core did not penetrate the planet's core, but remained there as a stain – explained Harry Ballantyne from the University of Bern, the lead author of the study.

Pluto. Tombaugh Regio is visible on the right. Sputnik Planitia is his left halfNASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

An unnecessary ocean

The study also sheds new light on Pluto's internal structure. According to the laws of physics, a giant depression such as Sputnik Planitia should move towards the dwarf planet's pole over time, rather than remaining close to the equator – this is due to its thin structure and therefore low mass compared to its surroundings. Scientists tried to explain this abnormality by the presence of a subsurface ocean of liquid water, which would push the “heart” upwards, preventing it from moving. The new study offers an alternative explanation – the additional mass blocking migration may come from the impactor flattened on Pluto's core.

“We have discovered completely new possibilities for Pluto's evolution that may also apply to other Kuiper Belt objects,” said Adeene Denton from the University of Arizona, who co-authored the paper.

The University of Arizona

Main photo source: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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