“X” Marks the Spot of Convective Churning on Hot Pluto

“X” marks the spot in this image transmitted to Earth on Dec. 24, 2015 from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) from NASA's New Horizons' showing the highest-resolution swath of Pluto at the center of Sputnik Planum, the informally named plain that forms the left side of Pluto's “heart.”  The pattern of polygonal cells stems from the slow thermal convection of the nitrogen-dominated ices.  Also visible is a a dirty block of water ice “floating” in denser solid nitrogen.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

“X” marks the spot that’s illustrative of “convective churning” resulting from subsurface planetary heating, as seen in a fascinating new super high resolution image received from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2015. Its situated at the very center of the left ventricle of Pluto’s huge “heart” – an icy flow plain that’s informally named “Sputnik Planum.”The “X” feature – see image above – is located in an area of intersecting cells, shaped like polygons, on the plains of “Sputnik Planum” which are mostly comprised of frozen nitrogen ices.So what’s really piqued the interest of scientists leading the New Horizons mission, is that the “X” feature is a residue of “convective churning” or internal heating and it has changed over time.Indeed the “X” is found at what appears to be the melted remnants of a quadruple junction of the polygonal or cellular patterns, that dominate Sputnik Planum. And it’s not tiny!“This part of Pluto is acting like a lava lamp,” said William McKinnon, deputy lead of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team, from Washington University in St. Louis, “if you can imagine a lava lamp as wide as, and even deeper than, the Hudson Bay.”The polygonal cell features are believed to have arisen over time from the slow thermal convection of the icy plains that are composed of a slushy mixture of mostly nitrogen ices along with some water ice mixed in.The image was taken by the probes telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at a distance of approximately 10,000 miles (17,000 kilometers), about 15 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto.Scientists currently interpret the dark patch near the top of the image to be a dirty water “iceberg” that’s “floating in denser solid nitrogen, and which has been —> Read More