The latest photos from NASA’s New Horizons probe show that Pluto’s “heart” has nitrogen ice which flows like a glacier.
Since its discovery in 1930, Pluto was a more literal example of a faraway place with features we could only imagine. But now that NASA’s New Horizons probe has reached its destination, we can finally get an up-close look at the distant dwarf planet. Naturally, we’re already discovering fascinating things – such as what appears to be flowing ice that moves like glaciers.
“We’ve only seen surfaces like this on active worlds like Earth and Mars,” mission co-investigator John Spencer said. “I’m really smiling.”
The details are coming from close-up images of “Sputnik Planum”, a Pluto plain roughly the size of Texas. Analysis revealed a sheet of ice that clearly flowed at one time, and possibly might still be in motion like our own glaciers. That’s not to say its “water” is the same composition as Earth’s – composition data suggests the Sputnik Planum is rich with nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices. “At Pluto’s temperatures of minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit, these ices can flow like a glacier,” New Horizons Geology, Geophysics, and Imaging team deputy leader Bill McKinnon explained.
The Sputnik Planum can be found in the western half of Pluto’s “heart”, but it’s not the only icy location. The heart’s southernmost region – the terrifyingly dubbed “Cthulhu Regio” – appears to have much newer ice deposits. NASA scientists continue to study the photos for more data, so don’t be surprised if we uncover more of Pluto’s secrets soon.