Charon’s Red Cap at its North Pole? We Might Have an Answer

Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, started off as a beautiful, smooth red grape until someone came along, mostly peeled it, tried to smoosh it, then just gave up and walked away, leaving the poor moon to look like the absolute travesty that it is. Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly what happened, but Charon just looks like a mess and scientists want to know why. Never mind its smooshed equator, but what’s the deal with its red cap? Where did it come from and why is it red?

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NASA is Now Considering a Pluto Orbiter Mission

Far left: Pluto and it's heart-shaped feature called “Tombaugh Regio” in honor of astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the dwarf planet. The bright expanse of the western lobe of Pluto’s “heart” is informally called Sputnik Planum. Above left: Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of landforms that have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story. Credit: Courtesy NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Table of Contents page 2015 Annual Report Division: (15)

NASA’s New Horizons mission taught us a lot about Pluto, the ice dwarf planet. But the spacecraft sped past Pluto so quickly, we only got high-resolution images of one side of the planet, the so-called “encounter side.” New Horizons gave us a big leap in understanding, but in a way, it asked more questions than it answered.

The next step is clearly an orbiter, and now NASA is starting to seriously consider one.

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Pluto and Charon Don’t Have Enough Small Craters

New Horizons image of the small craters on Pluto's moon Charon. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

In 2015, the New Horizons mission became the first robotic spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. In so doing, the probe managed to capture stunning photos and valuable data on what was once considered to be the ninth planet of the Solar System (and to some, still is) and its moons. Years later, scientists are still poring over the data to see what else they can learn about the Pluto-Charon system.

For instance, the mission science team at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) recently made an interesting discovery about Pluto and Charon. Based on images acquired by the New Horizons spacecraft of some small craters on their surfaces, the team indirectly confirmed something about the Kuiper Belt could have serious implications for our models of Solar System formation.

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Pluto’s Charon Gets Mountains Named After Sci-Fi Authors Octavia Butler and Arthur C. Clarke, as Well as Many Others From History and Legend. I Approve!

Map projection of Charon, the largest of Pluto’s five moons, annotated with its first set of official feature names. With a diameter of about 1215 km, the France-sized moon is one of largest known objects in the Kuiper Belt, the region of icy, rocky bodies beyond Neptune. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

In 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. In addition to revealing things about the planet’s atmosphere, its geology and system of moons, the probe also provided the first clear images of the surface of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Because of this, scientists are now able to study Pluto and Charon’s many curious surface features and learn more about their evolution.

Another interesting thing that has resulted from this surface imaging has been the ability to name these features. Recently, the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature officially approved of a dozen names that had been proposed by NASA’s New Horizons team. These names honor legendary explorers and visionaries, both real and fictitious, and include science fiction authors Octavia Butler and Arthur C. Clarke.

Aside from being Pluto’s largest moon, Charon is also one of the larger bodies in the Kuiper Belt. Because of its immense size, Charon does not orbit Pluto in the strictest sense. In truth, the barycenter of the Pluto-Charon system is outside Pluto, meaning the two bodies almost orbit each other. The moon also has a wealth of features, which include valleys, crevices, and craters similar to what have been seen on other moons.

Artist’s impression of New Horizons’ close encounter with the Pluto–Charon system. Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

For some time, the New Horizons team has been using a series of informal names to describe Charon’s many features. The team gathered most of them during the online public naming campaign they hosted in 2015. Known as  “Our Pluto“, this campaign consisted of people from all over the world contributed their suggestions for naming features on Pluto and Charon.

The New Horizons team also contributed their own suggestions and (according to the IAU) was instrumental in moving the new names through approval. As Dr. Alan Stern, the New Horizon team leader, told Universe Today via email: “We conduced a public feature name bank process in 2015 before flyby. Once flyby was complete our science team created a naming proposal for specific features and sent it to IAU.”

A similar process took place last year, where the IAU officially adopted 14 place names that were suggested by the New Horizons team – many of which were the result of the online naming campaign. Here too, the names were those that the team had been using informally to describe the many regions, mountain ranges, plains, valleys and craters that were discovered during the spacecraft’s flyby.

The names that were ultimately selected honored the spirit of epic exploration, which the New Horizons mission demonstrated by being the first probe to reach Pluto. As such, the names that were adopted honored travelers, explorers, scientists, pioneering journeys, and mysterious destinations. For example, Butler Mons honors Octavia E. Butler, a celebrated author and the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur fellowship.

Global map of Pluto’s moon Charon pieced together from images taken at different resolutions. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Similarly, Clarke Montes honors Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the prolific writer and futurist who co-wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey (which he later turned into a series of novels). Stanley Kubrik, who produced and directed 2001: A Space Odyssey, was also honored with the feature Kubrik Mons. Meanwhile, several craters were named in honor of fictional characters from famous stories and folklore.

The Revati Crater is named after the main character in the Hindu epic narrative Mahabharata while the Nasreddin Crater is named for the protagonist in thousands of folktales told throughout the Middle East, southern Europe and parts of Asia. Nemo Crater honors the captain of the Nautilus in Jule’s Verne’s novels Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1874).

The Pirx Crater is name after the main character in a series of short stories by Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem, while the Dorothy Crater takes its name from the protagonist in The Wizard of Oz, one of several children’s stories by L. Frank Baum that was set in this magical land.

As Rita Schulz, chair of the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, commented, “I am pleased that the features on Charon have been named with international spirit.” Dr. Alan Stern expressed similar sentiments. When asked if he was happy with the new names that have been approved, he said simply, “Very.”

Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule), a Kuiper Belt object that orbits 1.6 billion km (1 billion mi) beyond Pluto, on Jan. 1st, 2019. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

Even though the encounter with the Pluto system happened almost three years ago, scientists are still busy studying all the information gathered during the historic flyby. In addition, the New Horizons spacecraft will be making history again in the not-too-distant future. At present, the spacecraft is making its way farther into the outer Solar System with the intention of rendezvousing with two Kuiper Belt Objects.

On Jan. 1st, 2019, it will rendezvous with its first destination, the KBO known as 2014 MU69 (aka. “Ultima Thule“). This object will be the most primitive object ever observed by a spacecraft, and the encounter will the farthest ever achieved in space exploration. Before this intrepid exploration mission is complete, we can expect that a lot more of the outer Solar System will be mapped and named.

Further Reading: IAU

Astronomy Cast Ep. 456: Pluto Revisited

This week, we return to our starting point, where Astronomy Cast began: Pluto. 11 years on, we have a whole new appreciate for the dwarf planet Pluto. We’ve visited it, probed it and taken pictures. It’s time for an update.

We usually record Astronomy Cast every Friday at 1:30 pm PDT / 4:30 pm EDT/ 20:30 PM UTC (8:30 GMT). You can watch us live on, or the AstronomyCast YouTube page.

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Hey Map Collectors, Here’s a New Map of Pluto!

View from the surface of Pluto, showing its large moon Charon in the distance. Credit: New York Times

On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons mission made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto and its moons. In the course of making its way through this system, the probe gathered volumes of data on Pluto and its many satellites using a sophisticated suite of instruments. These included the first detailed images of what Pluto and its largest moon (Charon) look like up close.

And while scientists are still analyzing the volumes of data that the probe has sent home (and probably will be for years to come), the New Horizons mission team has given us plenty of discoveries to mull over in the meantime. For instance, using the many images taken by the mission, they recently created a series of high-quality, highly-detailed global maps of Pluto and Charon.

The maps were created thanks to the plethora of images that were taken by New Horizons’ Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and its Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). Whereas LORRI is a telescopic camera that was responsible for obtaining encounter and high-resolution geologic data of Pluto at long distances, the MVIC is an optical and infrared instrument that is part of the Ralph instrument – the main imaging device of the probe.

Global mosaic of Pluto, based on images obtained by the LORRI and MVIC instruments onboard New Horizons. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/LPI

The Principal Investigator (PI) for the LORRI instrument is Andy Cheng, and it is operated from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, Maryland. Alan Stern is the PI for the MVIC and Ralph instruments, which are operated from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas. And as you can plainly see, the maps are quite detailed and eye-popping!

Dr. Stern, who is also the PI of the New Horizons mission, commented on the release of the maps in a recent NASA press statement. As he stated, they are just the latest example of what the New Horizons mission accomplished during its historic mission:

“The complexity of the Pluto system — from its geology to its satellite system to its atmosphere— has been beyond our wildest imagination. Everywhere we turn are new mysteries. These new maps from the landmark exploration of Pluto by NASA’s New Horizons mission in 2015 will help unravel these mysteries and are for everyone to enjoy.”

Global mosaic of Charon, based on images obtained by the LORRI and MVIC instruments onboard New Horizons. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/LPI

And these were not the only treats to come from the New Horizons team in recent days. In addition, the mission scientists used actual New Horizons data and digital elevation models to create flyover movies that show what it would be like to pass over Pluto and Charon. These videos offer a new perspective on the system and showcase the many unusual features that were discovered on both bodies.

The video of the Pluto flyover (shown above) begins over the highlands that are located to the southwest of Sputnik Planitia – the nitrogen ice basin that measures some 1,050 by 800 km (650 by 500 mi) in size. These plains constitute the western lobe of the feature known as Tombaugh Regio, the heart-shaped region that is named after the man who discovered Pluto in 1930 – Clyde Tombaugh.

The flyover also passes by cratered terrain of Cthulhu Macula before moving north past the highlands of Voyager Terra. It then turns south towards the pitted region known as Pioneer Terra before concluding over Tartarus Dorsa, a mountainous region that also contains bowl-shaped ice and snow features called penitentes (which are found on Earth and are formed by erosion).

The flyover video of Charon begins over the hemisphere that the New Horizons mission saw during its closest approach to the moon. The view then descends over Serenity Chasma, the wide and deep canyon that is named after the ship from the sci-fi series Firefly. This feature is part of the vast equatorial belt of chasms on Charon, which is one of the longest in the Solar System – 1,800 km (1,100 mi) long 7.5 km (4.5 mi) deep.

The view then moves north, passing over the Dorothy Gale crater and the dark polar region known as Mordor Macula (appropriately named after the domain of the Dark Lord Sauron in The Lord of the Rings). The video then turn south to fly over the northern terrain known as Oz Terra before finishing over the equatorial plans of Vulcan Planum and the mountain of Clarke Montes.

These videos were color-enhanced in order to bring out the surface details, and the topographic relief was exaggerated by a factor or two to three to emphasize the topography of Pluto and its largest moon. Digital mapping and rendering of these videos was performed by Paul Schenk and John Blackwell of the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) in Houston.

It may be many years before another mission is able to travel to the Trans-Neptunian region and Kuiper Belt. As a result, the maps and videos and images that were taken by the New Horizons mission may the last glimpse some us get of the Pluto system. Luckily, the New Horizons mission has provided scientists and the general public with enough information to keep them busy and fascinated for years!

Further Reading: NASA

The Orbit of Pluto. How Long is a Year on Pluto?

New Horizon's July 2015 flyby of Pluto captured this iconic image of the heart-shaped region called Tombaugh Regio. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto was once thought to be the ninth and outermost planet of the Solar System. However, due to the formal definition adopted in 2006 at the 26th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Pluto ceased being the ninth planet of the Solar System and has become alternately known as a “Dwarf Planet”, “Plutiod”, Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) and Kuiper Belt Object (KBO).

Despite this change of designation, Pluto remains one of the most fascinating celestial bodies known to astronomers. In addition to having a very distant orbit around the Sun (and hence a very long orbital period) it also has the most eccentric orbit of any planet or minor planet in the Solar System. This makes for a rather long year on Pluto, which lasts the equivalent of 248 Earth years!

Orbital Period:

With an extreme eccentricity of 0.2488, Pluto’s distance from the Sun ranges from 4,436,820,000 km (2,756,912,133 mi) at perihelion to 7,375,930,000 km (4,583,190,418 mi) at aphelion. Meanwhile, it’s average distance (semi-major axis) from the Sun is 5,906,380,000 km (3,670,054,382 mi). Another way to look at it would be to say that it orbits the Sun at an average distance of 39.48 AU, ranging from 29.658 to 49.305 AU.

New Horizons trajectory and the orbits of Pluto and 2014 MU69.

At its closest, Pluto actually crosses Neptune’s orbit and gets closer to the Sun. This orbital pattern takes place once every 500 years, after which the two objects then return to their initial positions and the cycle repeats. Their orbits also place them in a 2:3 mean-motion resonance, which means that for every two orbits Pluto makes around the Sun, Neptune makes three.

The 2:3 resonance between the two bodies is highly stable, and is preserved over millions of years. The last time this cycle took place was between 1979 to 1999, when Neptune was farther from the Sun than Pluto. Pluto reached perihelion in this cycle – i.e. its closest point to the Sun – on September 5th, 1989. Since 1999, Pluto returned to a position beyond that of Neptune, where it will remain for the following 228 years – i.e. until the year 2227.

Sidereal and Solar Day:

Much like the other bodies in our Solar System, Pluto also rotates on its axis. The time it takes for it to complete a single rotation on its axis is known as a “Sidereal Day”, while the amount of time it takes for the Sun to reach the same point in the sky is known as a “Solar Day”. But due to Pluto’s very long orbital period, a sidereal day and a solar day on Pluto are about the same – 6.4 Earth days (or 6 days, 9 hours, and 36 minutes).

View from the surface of Pluto, showing its large moon Charon in the distance. Credit: New York Time

It is also worth noting that Pluto and Charon (its largest moon) are actually more akin to a binary system rather than a planet-moon system. This means that the two worlds orbit each other, and that Charon is tidally locked around Pluto. In other words, Charon takes 6 days and 9 hours to orbit around Pluto – the same amount of time it takes for a day on Pluto. This also means that Charon is always in the same place in the sky when seen from Pluto.

In short, a single day on Pluto lasts the equivalent of about six and a half Earth days. A year on Pluto, meanwhile, lasts the equivalent of 248 Earth years, or 90,560 Earth days! And for the entire year, the moon is hanging overhead and looming large in the sky. But factor in Pluto’s axial tilt, and you will come to see just how odd an average year on Pluto is.

Seasonal Change:

It has been estimated that for someone standing on the surface of Pluto, the Sun would appear about 1,000 times dimmer than it appears from Earth. So while the Sun would still be the brightest object in the sky, it would look more like a very bright star that a big yellow disk. But despite being very far from the Sun at any given time, Pluto’s eccentric orbit still results in some considerable seasonal variations.

On the whole, the surface temperature of Pluto does not change much. It’s surface temperatures are estimated to range from a low of 33 K (-240 °C; -400 °F ) to a high of 55 K (-218 °C; -360°F) – averaging at around 44 K (-229 °C; -380 °F). However, the amount of sunlight each side receives during the course of a year is vastly different.

Compared to most of the planets and their moons, the Pluto-Charon system is oriented perpendicular to its orbit. Much like Uranus, Pluto’s very high axial tilt (122 degrees) essentially means that it is orbiting on its side relative to its orbital plane. This means that at a solstice, one-quarter of Pluto’s surface experiences continuous daylight while the other experiences continuous darkness.

This is similar to what happens in the Arctic Circle, where the summer solstice is characterized by perpetual sunlight (i.e. the “Midnight Sun”) and the winter solstice by perpetual night (“Arctic Darkness”). But on Pluto, these phenomena affect nearly the entire planet, and the seasons last for close to a century.

Even if it is no longer considered a planet (though this could still change) Pluto still has some very fascinating quarks, all of which are just as worthy of study as those of the other eight planets. And the time it takes to complete a full year on Pluto, and all the seasonal changes it goes through, certainly rank among the top ten!

We have written many interesting articles about a year on other planets here at Universe Today. Here’s How Long is a Year on the Other Planets?, Which Planet has the Longest Day?, How Long is a Year on Mercury?, How Long is a Year on Venus?, How Long is a Year on Earth?, How Long is a Year on Mars?, How Long is a Year on Jupiter?, How Long is a Year on Saturn?, How Long is a Year on Uranus?, and How Long is a Year on Neptune?.

For more information, be sure to check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Pluto, and the New Horizon’s mission page for information on Pluto’s seasons.

Astronomy Cast also has some great episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 1: Pluto’s Planetary Identity Crisis and Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.


A Farewell to Plutoshine


Looking back at an overexposed Charon and Plutoshine. Credit: NASA/JPL/New Horizons

Sometimes, its not the eye candy aspect of the image, but what it represents. A recent image of Pluto’s large moon Charon courtesy of New Horizons depicting what could only be termed ‘Plutoshine’ caught our eye. Looking like something from the grainy era of the early Space Age, we see a crescent Charon, hanging against a starry background…

So what, you say? Sure, the historic July 14th , 2015 flyby of New Horizons past Pluto and friends delivered images with much more pop and aesthetic appeal. But look closely, and you’ll see something both alien and familiar, something that no human eye has ever witnessed, yet you can see next week.

We’re talking about the reflected ‘Plutoshine‘ on the dark limb of Charon. This over-exposed image was snapped from over 160,000 kilometers distant by New Horizons’ Ralph/Multispectral imager looking back at Charon, post flyby. For context, that’s just shy of half the distance between the Earth and the Moon. “Bigger than Texas” (Cue Armageddon), Charon is about 1200 kilometers in diameter and 1/8th the mass of Pluto. Together, both form the only true binary (dwarf) planetary pair in the solar system, with the 1/80th Earth-Moon pair coming in at a very distant second.

Earthshine on the Moon. Credit: Dave Dickinson

We see reflected sunlight coming off of a gibbous Pluto which is just out of frame, light that left the Sun 4 hours ago and took less than a second to make the final Pluto-Charon-New Horizons bounce. You can see a similar phenomenon next week, as Earthshine or Ashen Light illuminates the otherwise dark nighttime side of the Earth’s Moon, fresh off of passing New phase this weekend. Snow and cloud cover turned Moonward can have an effect on how bright Earthshine appears. One ongoing study based out of the Big Bear Solar observatory in California named Project Earthshine seeks to characterize long-term climate variations looking at this very phenomenon.

The view on the evening of January 28th looking west at dusk. Credit: Stellarium.

Standing on Pluto, you’d see a 3.5 degree wide Charon, 7 times larger than our own Full Moon. Of course, you’d need to be standing in the right hemisphere, as Pluto and Charon are tidally locked, and keep the same face turned towards each other. It would be a dim view, as the Sun shines at -20 magnitude at 30 AU distant, much brighter than a Full Moon, but still over 600 times fainter than sunny Earth. Dim Plutoshine on the nightside of Charon would, however, be easily visible to the naked eye.

A small 6 cm instrument, Ralph images in the visual to near-infrared range. Ralph compliments New Horizons larger LORRI instrument, which has a diameter and very similar optical configuration to an amateur 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.

Charon as seen from Pluto. Credit: Starry Night.

Don’t look for Pluto now; it just passed solar conjunction on the far side of the Sun on January 7th, 2017. Pluto reaches opposition and favorable viewing for 2017 on July 10th, one of the 101 Astronomical Events for 2017 that you’ll find in our free e-book, out from Universe Today.

And for an encore, New Horizons will visit the 45 kilometer in diameter Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 on New Year’s Day 2019. From there, New Horizons will most likely chronicle the environs of the the distant solar system, as it joins Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2 as human built artifacts cast adrift along the galactic plane.

A pretty pair: Pluto and Charon. Credit: NASA/JPL/New Horizons

And to think, it has taken New Horizons about 18 months for all of its flyby data to trickle back to the Earth. Enjoy, as it’ll be a long time before we visit Pluto and friends again.

Pluto Has a Subsurface ‘Antifreeze’ Ocean

New Horizon's July 2015 flyby of Pluto captured this iconic image of the heart-shaped region called Tombaugh Regio. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

The evidence keeps growing for a large subsurface ocean at Pluto, which also provides clues how the iconic ‘heart’ of Pluto was formed.

We reported in early October that thermal models of Pluto’s interior and tectonic evidence suggest an ocean may exist beneath Pluto’s heart-shaped Sputnik Planitia. Now, new research on data from the New Horizons mission shows more indications of an ocean just below Pluto’s surface that consists of a slushy, viscous liquid, kept warm from Pluto’s interior and a hint of anti-freeze.

“As far as we can tell, there’s no tidal heating helping to keep the ocean liquid,” Francis Nimmo from UC Santa Cruz told Universe Today. He is the first author of a paper on the new findings published today in Nature. “The main heat source keeping the ocean liquid is radioactive decay in Pluto’s rocky interior, although it certainly helps if there is an ‘antifreeze’ present.”

This cutaway image of Pluto shows a section through the area of Sputnik Planitia, with dark blue representing a subsurface ocean and light blue for the frozen crust. Artwork by Pam Engebretson, courtesy of UC Santa Cruz.
This cutaway image of Pluto shows a section through the area of Sputnik Planitia, with dark blue representing a subsurface ocean and light blue for the frozen crust. Artwork by Pam Engebretson, courtesy of UC Santa Cruz.

Nimmo said he suspects the ocean is mostly water with ammonia acting as an antifreeze. This subsurface ocean is also bulging, similar to the ‘mascons’ on the Moon, putting stress on Pluto’s icy outer shell, causing fractures consistent with features seen in the New Horizons images.

Another paper also published in Nature today from James Keane at the University of Arizona, also shows how a bulging subsurface ocean made Pluto’s heart ‘heavy,’ reorienting Pluto on its axis, so that Pluto’s heart is always pointing away from the moon Charon.

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to fractures and faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planitia.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to fractures and faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planitia. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Sputnik Planitia forms one side of the prominent heart-shaped feature seen in some of the first close-up images from New Horizons July 2015 flyby. It was likely created by the impact of a giant meteorite, which would have blasted away a huge amount of Pluto’s icy crust.

But a deep basin is just a “big, elliptical hole in the ground,” Nimmo said, that would not provide the extra mass needed to cause that kind of reorientation. “So, the extra weight must be hiding somewhere beneath the surface. And an ocean is a natural way to get that.”

These schematic diagrams show how the gravity anomaly at Sputnik Planitia is affected by an uplifted ocean and the thickness of the nitrogen layer. Either a nitrogen layer more than 40 km thick (panel b) or an uplifted ocean (panel c) could result in a present-day positive gravity anomaly at Sputnik Planitia; otherwise, the gravity anomaly will be strongly negative (panel a). (Image from Nimmo et al., Nature, 2016)
These schematic diagrams show how the gravity anomaly at Sputnik Planitia is affected by an uplifted ocean and the thickness of the nitrogen layer. Either a nitrogen layer more than 40 km thick (panel b) or an uplifted ocean (panel c) could result in a present-day positive gravity anomaly at Sputnik Planitia; otherwise, the gravity anomaly will be strongly negative (panel a). (Image from Nimmo et al., Nature, 2016)

But Pluto is cold, with temperatures ranging from -387 to -369 Fahrenheit (-233 to -223 Celsius). How could there be an ocean?

“Pluto is small enough that it’s just about almost cooled off but still has a little heat, and it’s about 2 percent the heat budget of the Earth, in terms of how much energy is coming out,” said co-author Richard Binzel, from MIT. “So we calculated Pluto’s size with its interior heat flow, and found that underneath Sputnik Planitia, at those temperatures and pressures, you could have a zone of water-ice that could be at least viscous. It’s not a liquid, flowing ocean, but maybe slushy. And we found this explanation was the only way to put the puzzle together that seems to make any sense.”

The massive basin also appears extremely bright relative to the rest of the planet, and the data from New Horizons suggest it is filled with frozen nitrogen ice.

Previous research from the the mission showed evidence that the liquid nitrogen may be constantly refreshing, or convecting, as a result of a weak spot at the bottom of the basin, and this weak spot may let heat rise through Pluto’s interior to continuously refresh the ice.

Additionally, the extra weight of an underground ocean could help explain the longstanding question of why Pluto’s heart aligns almost exactly opposite from Charon. Nimmo said this alignment is “suspicious” and that the likelihood of this being just a coincidence is only 5 percent. Therefore, the alignment suggests that extra mass in that location interacted with tidal forces between Pluto and Charon to reorient Pluto, putting Sputnik Planitia directly opposite the side facing Charon.

A thick, heavy ocean, the new data suggest, may have served as a “gravitational anomaly,” which would factor heavily in Pluto and Charon’s gravitational tug-of-war, the researchers said. Over millions of years, the planet would have spun around, aligning its subsurface ocean and the heart-shaped region above it, almost exactly opposite along the line connecting Pluto and Charon.

While scientists are still studying the data from New Horizons, it is safe to say that Pluto keeps surprising everyone, even the scientists who know it best.

“Pluto is hard to fathom on so many different levels,” said Binzel.

Further reading:
UC Santa Cruz
Nature Paper: Reorientation of Sputnik Planitia implies a subsurface ocean on Pluto
Nature Paper: Reorientation and faulting of Pluto due to volatile loading within Sputnik Planitia