How Did Pluto Get Its Heart? Scientists Suggest an Answer

New Horizons view of Pluto
The heart-shaped region of Pluto's surface was formed at least in part by a cataclysmic "splat," scientists say. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The most recognizable feature on Pluto is its “heart,” a relatively bright valentine-shaped area known as Tombaugh Regio. How that heart got started is one of the dwarf planet’s deepest mysteries — but now researchers say they’ve come up with the most likely scenario, involving a primordial collision with a planetary body that was a little more than 400 miles wide.

The scientific term for what happened, according to a study published today in Nature Astronomy, is “splat.”

Astronomers from the University of Bern in Switzerland and the University of Arizona looked for computer simulations that produced dynamical results similar to what’s seen in data from NASA’s New Horizons probe. They found a set of simulations that made for a close match, but also ran counter to previous suggestions that Pluto harbors a deep subsurface ocean. They said their scenario doesn’t depend on the existence of a deep ocean — which could lead scientists to rewrite the history of Pluto’s geological evolution.

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Start Your Engines: NASA Picks 3 Teams to Work on Lunar Terrain Vehicle

Illustration: NASA's Lunar Terrain Vehicle concept
An artist's conception shows NASA's generic concept for the Lunar Terrain Vehicle. (NASA Illustration)

Some of the biggest names in aerospace — and the automotive industry — will play roles in putting NASA astronauts in the driver’s seat for roving around on the moon.

The space agency today selected three teams to develop the capabilities for a lunar terrain vehicle, or LTV, which astronauts could use during Artemis missions to the moon starting with Artemis 5. That mission is currently scheduled for 2029, three years after the projected date for Artemis’ first crewed lunar landing.

The teams’ leading companies may not yet be household names outside the space community: Intuitive Machines, Lunar Outpost and Venturi Astrolab. But each of those ventures has more established companies as their teammates.

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New View Reveals Magnetic Fields Around Our Galaxy’s Giant Black Hole

Magnetic fields around Milky Way's black hole
A new image from the Event Horizon Telescope shows lines of polarization, a signature of magnetic fields, around the shadow of the Milky Way's central black hole. (Credit: EHT Collaboration)

Fresh imagery from the Event Horizon Telescope traces the lines of powerful magnetic fields spiraling out from the edge of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, and suggests that strong magnetism may be common to all supermassive black holes.

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Starshot … Not? Get a Reality Check on the Search for Alien Civilizations

Zine Tseng as Chinese radio astronomer, sitting at control panel for antenna
Zine Tseng plays a Chinese radio astronomer in "3 Body Problem." (Credit: Ed Miller / Netflix © 2024)

Fortunately, the real-world search for signs of extraterrestrial civilizations doesn’t have to deal with an alien armada like the one that’s on its way to Earth in “3 Body Problem,” the Netflix streaming series based on Chinese sci-fi author Cixin Liu’s award-winning novels. But the trajectory of the search can have almost as many twists and turns as a curvature-drive trip from the fictional San-Ti star system.

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Starship Reaches Orbit on SpaceX’s Third Test but Breaks Up on Re-Entry

Starship rising into the sky
SpaceX's Starship rocket rises into the skies over Texas. (SpaceX Photo)

After falling short in its first two attempts, SpaceX got its Starship super-rocket to an orbital altitude today during the launch system’s third integrated flight test. Now it just has to work on the landing. 

Today’s test marked a major milestone in SpaceX’s effort to develop Starship as the equivalent of a gigantic Swiss Army knife for spaceflight, with potential applications ranging from the deployment of hundreds of Starlink broadband satellites at a time to crewed odysseys to the moon, Mars and beyond.

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Pentagon Report Rules Out UFO Cover-Up, But the Debate Goes On

Not a UFO: F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter on exhibit
References to an F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter, shown here on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, were apparently misconstrued as a discussion about an encounter with alien technology, according to a newly released Pentagon report. (NMUSAF Photo)

The Pentagon office in charge of investigating UFO reports — now known officially as unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs — today provided its most detailed explanation for what it said were false or misconstrued claims of alien visitations over the decades.

The first volume of a historical record report released by the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, or AARO, in response to a congressional mandate did include a fresh disclosure: During the 2010s, U.S. government officials considered a proposed program code-named “Kona Blue” that would have looked into the possibility that extraterrestrial technology could be reverse-engineered. But the Department of Homeland Security rejected the idea because it lacked merit, the report said.

“It is critical to note that no extraterrestrial craft or bodies were ever collected — this material was only assumed to exist by Kona Blue advocates and its anticipated contract performers,” according to the report. The same assumptions were made by outside investigators who delved into UAP reports as part of an earlier Pentagon-funded program, AARO said.

One of the investigators involved in that program — which was known as the Advanced Aerospace Weapons System Application Program or the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AAWSAP/AATIP) — made clear that he’d continue trying to keep the alien angle in the public eye.

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How Startups on Earth Could Blaze a Trail for Cities on Mars

Illustration: 3D-printed habitats on Mars
An artist's conception shows 3D-printed habitats in a Mars settlement. (Credit: Team SEArch+/Apis Cor via NASA)

If future explorers manage to set up communities on Mars, how will they pay their way? What’s likely to be the Red Planet’s primary export? Will it be Martian deuterium, sent back to Earth for fusion fuel? Raw materials harvested by Mars-based asteroid miners, as depicted in the “For All Mankind” TV series? Or will future Martians be totally dependent on earthly subsidies?

In a new book titled “The New World on Mars,” Robert Zubrin — the president of the Mars Society and a tireless advocate for space settlement — says Mars’ most valuable product will be inventions.

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Odysseus Is Shut Down After Sending Snapshots From Moon Landing

Image of Odysseus moon landing
This image shows one of the Odysseus lander's legs breaking due to the shock of first contact on the moon. (Credit: Intuitive Machines)

Update: On March 23, Intuitive Machines said that its Odysseus lander failed to re-establish contact after the lunar night, and took that as confirmation that the spacecraft has “permanently faded after cementing its legacy into history as the first commercial lunar lander to land on the moon.”

Previously: Intuitive Machines says it’s putting its Odysseus moon lander to bed for a long lunar night, with hopes of reviving it once the sun rises again near the moon’s south pole.

The Houston-based company and NASA recapped Odysseus’s six days of operation on the lunar surface, shared pictures showing its off-kilter configuration, and looked ahead to the mission’s next phase during a briefing today at Johnson Space Center in Texas.

The original plan called for the solar-powered spacecraft to be turned off when the sun fell below the lunar horizon, but Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus said mission controllers would instead put the Odysseus into hibernation and try restoring contact in three weeks’ time. “We are going to leave the computers and the power system in a place where we can wake it up and do this development test objective, to actually try to ping it with an antenna and see if we can’t wake it up once it gets power again,” he told reporters.

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Odysseus Moon Lander Sends More Pictures — and We Know Where It Is

Odyssey's view of lunar terrain during approach to landing site
The Odysseus lander captured this image about 35 seconds after pitching over during its approach to the lunar landing site. The ultra-wide-angle view shows Odysseus and its landing legs at the bottom of the frame. (Credit: Intuitive Machines)

Four days after Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lander made an off-kilter touchdown on the moon, the mission team is releasing snapshots that were taken during its descent.

The ultra-wide-angle images confirm that the lander is continuing to communicate with flight controllers, even though it’s lying in an awkward angle that limits how much data its antennas can transmit.

Meanwhile, images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have identified Odysseus’ landing spot, within a mile (1.5 kilometers) of its intended target near a crater called Malapert A in the moon’s south polar region. The bad news is that the solar-powered lander may have to go dark sooner than anticipated.

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Surprise! Japan’s SLIM Moon Lander Wakes Up After a Freezing Night

Illustration: SLIM lander on the moon
An artist's conception shows Japan's SLIM lander in its upended position on the lunar surface. (Credit: JAXA)

Japan’s space agency didn’t expect its wrong-side-up SLIM moon lander to revive itself after powering down for a circuit-chilling lunar night on Feb. 1. But that’s exactly what happened.

“Last night, a command was sent to SLIM and a response received, confirming that the spacecraft has made it through the lunar night and maintained communication capabilities!” the SLIM mission team reported today in a posting to X / Twitter.

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