Beating Heart Under Surface Of Pluto Controls Its Wind, Scientists Discover

by : Julia Banim on : 06 Feb 2020 14:46
Beating Heart Under Surface Of Pluto Controls Its Wind, Scientists DiscoverBeating Heart Under Surface Of Pluto Controls Its Wind, Scientists DiscoverNASA

Scientists have discovered Pluto’s icy cold ‘beating heart’ could be controlling and circulating its wind, much like a heart circulates blood around a body.

Made from frozen nitrogen, this heart shaped structure – known as Tombaugh Regio – is said to control the dwarf planet’s winds, and could potentially be the reason behind the intriguing landscape features recently noted on its varied surface.


Prior to NASA’s New Horizons mission – launched in 2006 – astrophysicists believed Pluto’s surface would be flat and barren, with little in the way of diversity. However, this turned out to be far from the case, with scientists uncovering a surprising amount of geological variety.


Pluto’s thin atmosphere is mostly comprised of nitrogen gas, an element also present within the Earth’s atmosphere, along with methane and carbon monoxide. Frozen nitrogen covers part of Pluto’s surface in a heart-like shape which, scientists believe, controls the circulation of nitrogen winds around the planet.

Each day, a thin layer of the frozen nitrogen will warm and vaporise before condensing and freezing once again after night falls, according to new findings in AGU’s Journal of Geophysical Research.


This fascinating cycle leads to Pluto’s atmosphere being circulated in the opposite direction to its spin, a phenomenon known as retro-rotation.

As the air blows close to Pluto’s surface, heat, grains of ice and haze particles are transported in a way which creates streaks of dark wind and plains throughout the north and northwestern regions of the planet.

The new space study has helped scientists better understand processes which have led to Pluto’s unexpectedly fascinating landscapes, all while highlighting comparisons between Pluto and Earth.


Lead author of the study, Tanguy Bertrand – an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California – said:

This highlights the fact that Pluto’s atmosphere and winds – even if the density of the atmosphere is very low – can impact the surface.

Bertrand added:

Before New Horizons, everyone thought Pluto was going to be a netball – completely flat, almost no diversity. But it’s completely different. It has a lot of different landscapes and we are trying to understand what’s going on there.


Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, a planetary scientist from Arizona’s Planetary Science Institute, who wasn’t involved with the new study, also spoke about the interesting development:

It’s very much the kind of thing that’s due to the topography or specifics of the setting. I’m impressed that Pluto’s models have advanced to the point that you can talk about regional weather.

[…] This whole concept of Pluto’s beating heart is a wonderful way of thinking about it.

The wind patterns circulated by Pluto’s cold heart could well explain why it hosts dark plains and wind streaks to the west of the Sputnik Planitia basin.


Winds may transport heat, which could warm the surface or else erode and darken the ice through the transportation and depositing of haze particles. As noted within the study, if Pluto’s winds were circulated in a different direction, the landscapes could well look entirely different.

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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

Topics: Science, ice, NASA


Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets and 2 others
  1. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets

    Pluto's icy heart makes winds blow

  2. Advancing Earth And Space Science