Science

Pluto’s strange polygons now have a scientific explanation

Pluto composite

A composite image of Pluto created from data from NASA’s New Horizons mission. (Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute)

Pluto is geologically alive.

The strange geometric shapes that were first observed on the dwarf planet’s surface in 2015 are indications that a process called sublimation is underway, a new study suggests.

A new model indicates that polygonal nitrogen ice on Pluto, discovered by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during a flyby, froze directly from vapor, rather than passing through a liquid state in between.

Lead author Adrien Morison, a researcher at the University of Exeter in England, said his team’s work is the first explanation, based on models, that shows why the polygons are there.

“Pluto remains geologically active despite being far from the sun and having limited internal energy sources,” Morison said in a university statement. “This included in Sputnik Planitia, where surface conditions allow gaseous nitrogen in its atmosphere to coexist with solid nitrogen.”

Related: Destination Pluto: NASA’s New Horizons Mission in Pictures

The surface of Pluto's icy Sputnik Planum, seen here in a photo captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft during its close flyby of the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015, is covered in

The surface of Pluto’s icy Sputnik Planum, seen here in a photo captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its close flyby of the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015, is covered in moving ice “cells.” that are geologically young and are tipping over due to convection. (Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute)

Sputnik Planitia is Pluto’s most prominent geological feature, as it is a huge oval-shaped area that straddles Pluto’s equator. Estimates from 2016, when it used to be called Sputnik Planum, peg the zone at 347,500 square miles (900,000 square kilometers) and at least 1.2 to 1.8 miles (2 to 3 km) deep.

The new study consisted of numerical simulations, showing that as nitrogen on Pluto cools during sublimation on Sputnik Planitia, it will produce polygons consistent with the size and topographic breadth seen in New Horizons images. The new model is also consistent with larger world climate models showing that Sputnik Planitia’s sublimation began a million or two million years ago.

This sublimation process can occur on other icy worlds around the solar system, the team noted, including Triton (a large moon on Neptune), or the Kuiper Belt objects Eris and Makemake, far away in the solar system. But more observations of their surfaces would likely be required, which in turn would likely need spacecraft. So far there are no missions assigned to visit these various worlds.

A study based on the research was published Wednesday (December 15) in Nature.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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