Making history with Pluto

Last night I watched the live stream from NASA TV of the New Horizons team and onlookers as a space probe reached Pluto for the first ever time. There were no images at the time, as the radio signals take over 5 hours to reach Earth from Pluto. Also, as I found out last night, to reduce the risk of equipment failure New Horizons can only send data back to Earth when it is not doing science and taking photos. The antenna itself to return data to Earth does not move, and so it must be pointed at Earth by turning the probe itself, and therefore the science instruments away from Pluto. Despite this, the atmosphere was incredible, with many crying for joy.

The first images have come in, and courtesy of the xkcd web-comic we have our first geological interpretation of Pluto.

In all seriousness, I’d like to turn your attention to the so-called heart of Pluto. This incredibly large patch of Pluto’s surface appears almost completely devoid of surface features. Scientists are already speculating that this is due to ongoing geological processes at work under the surface. For this to be the case, Pluto must remain quite geologically active today – rather unusual for such a small planetary body! If the surface had not been recently active, this area should be riddled with craters from asteroid and comet impacts like the rest of the surface.

One possible explanation that comes to mind is in the form of the Lunar mare, the large, dark basaltic planes on the Moon formed by volcanic eruptions. These eruptions are thought to be the result of asteroid impacts that had enough force to induce widespread volcanism on the surface. These areas are relatively smooth as the young volcanism covers any trace of impacts.

The heart has roughly the right shape to have been caused by several such events, but it is unusual that the region is a lighter colour than the rest of the dwarf planet. This could possibly be the result of a more felsic magmatism? Or I could be way off. Comment your thoughts below!

Until next time.

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