Nav: Home

Pluto's icy heart makes winds blow

February 04, 2020

WASHINGTON--A "beating heart" of frozen nitrogen controls Pluto's winds and may give rise to features on its surface, according to a new study.

Pluto's famous heart-shaped structure, named Tombaugh Regio, quickly became famous after NASA's New Horizons mission captured footage of the dwarf planet in 2015 and revealed it isn't the barren world scientists thought it was.

Now, new research shows Pluto's renowned nitrogen heart rules its atmospheric circulation. Uncovering how Pluto's atmosphere behaves provides scientists with another place to compare to our own planet. Such findings can pinpoint both similar and distinctive features between Earth and a dwarf planet billions of miles away.

Nitrogen gas - an element also found in air on Earth - comprises most of Pluto's thin atmosphere, along with small amounts of carbon monoxide and the greenhouse gas methane. Frozen nitrogen also covers part of Pluto's surface in the shape of a heart. During the day, a thin layer of this nitrogen ice warms and turns into vapor. At night, the vapor condenses and once again forms ice. Each sequence is like a heartbeat, pumping nitrogen winds around the dwarf planet.

New research in AGU's Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets suggests this cycle pushes Pluto's atmosphere to circulate in the opposite direction of its spin - a unique phenomenon called retro-rotation. As air whips close to the surface, it transports heat, grains of ice and haze particles to create dark wind streaks and plains across the north and northwestern regions.

"This highlights the fact that Pluto's atmosphere and winds - even if the density of the atmosphere is very low - can impact the surface," said Tanguy Bertrand, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in California and the study's lead author.

Most of Pluto's nitrogen ice is confined to Tombaugh Regio. Its left "lobe" is a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) ice sheet located in a 3-kilometer (1.9-mile) deep basin named Sputnik Planitia - an area that holds most of the dwarf planet's nitrogen ice because of its low elevation. The heart's right "lobe" is comprised of highlands and nitrogen-rich glaciers that extend into the basin.

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

Western winds

Bertrand and his colleagues set out to determine how circulating air - which is 100,000 times thinner than that of Earth's - might shape features on the surface. The team pulled data from New Horizons' 2015 flyby to depict Pluto's topography and its blankets of nitrogen ice. They then simulated the nitrogen cycle with a weather forecast model and assessed how winds blew across the surface.

The group discovered Pluto's winds above 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) blow to the west -- the opposite direction from the dwarf planet's eastern spin -- in a retro-rotation during most of its year. As nitrogen within Tombaugh Regio vaporizes in the north and becomes ice in the south, its movement triggers westward winds, according to the new study. No other place in the solar system has such an atmosphere, except perhaps Neptune's moon Triton.

The researchers also found a strong current of fast-moving, near-surface air along the western boundary of the Sputnik Planitia basin. The airflow is like wind patterns on Earth, such as the Kuroshio along the eastern edge of Asia. Atmospheric nitrogen condensing into ice drives this wind pattern, according to the new findings. Sputnik Planitia's high cliffs trap the cold air inside the basin, where it circulates and becomes stronger as it passes through the western region.

The intense western boundary current's existence excited Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, a planetary scientist with the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona who wasn't involved with the new study.

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

On the broader scale, Hansen-Koharcheck thought the new study was intriguing. "This whole concept of Pluto's beating heart is a wonderful way of thinking about it," she added.

These wind patterns stemming from Pluto's nitrogen heart may explain why it hosts dark plains and wind streaks to the west of Sputnik Planitia. Winds could transport heat--which would warm the surface--or could erode and darken the ice by transporting and depositing haze particles. If winds on the dwarf planet swirled in a different direction, its landscapes might look completely different.

"Sputnik Planitia may be as important for Pluto's climate as the ocean is for Earth's climate," Bertrand said. "If you remove Sputnik Planitia - if you remove the heart of Pluto - you won't have the same circulation," he added.

The new findings allow researchers to explore an exotic world's atmosphere and compare what they discover with what they know about Earth. The new study also shines light on an object 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) away from the sun, with a heart that captivated audiences around the globe.

"Pluto has some mystery for everybody," Bertrand said.
-end-
Founded in 1919, AGU is a not-for-profit scientific society dedicated to advancing Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity. We support 60,000 members, who reside in 135 countries, as well as our broader community, through high-quality scholarly publications, dynamic meetings, our dedication to science policy and science communications, and our commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce, as well as many other innovative programs. AGU is home to the award-winning news publication Eos, the Thriving Earth Exchange, where scientists and community leaders work together to tackle local issues, and a headquarters building that represents Washington, D.C.'s first net zero energy commercial renovation.

Notes for Journalists

This paper is freely available. Journalists and public information officers (PIOs) can download a PDF copy of the article by clicking on this link: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1029/2019JE006120

Journalists and PIOs may also request a copy of the final paper by emailing Lauren Lipuma at llipuma@agu.org. Please provide your name, the name of your publication, and your phone number.

Neither the paper nor this press release is under embargo.

Paper Title:

"Pluto's beating heart regulates the atmospheric circulation: results from high resolution and multi-year numerical climate simulations"

Authors:

T. Bertrand: NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, United States;

F. Forget: Laboratoire de Meteorologie Dynamique, IPSL, Sorbonne University, Paris, France;

O. White: NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, United States;

B. Schmitt: Universite Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, Institut de Planetologie et Astrophysique de Grenoble, Grenoble, France;

S. A. Stern: Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, United States;

H. A. Weaver: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland, United States;

L. A. Young: Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, United States;

K. Ennico: NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, United States;

C.B. Olkin: Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, United States;

and the New Horizons Science Team.

This press release and accompanying images can be found at: https://news.agu.org/press-release/plutos-icy-heart-makes-winds-blow/

AGU press contact:

Lauren Lipuma
+1 (202) 777-7396
news@agu.org

Contact information for the researchers:

Tanguy Bertrand, NASA Ames Research Center
+1 (650) 604-1488
tanguy.bertrand@nasa.gov

American Geophysical Union

Related Nitrogen Articles:

Reducing reliance on nitrogen fertilizers with biological nitrogen fixation
Crop yields have increased substantially over the past decades, occurring alongside the increasing use of nitrogen fertilizer.
Flushing nitrogen from seawater-based toilets
With about half the world's population living close to the coast, using seawater to flush toilets could be possible with a salt-tolerant bacterium.
We must wake up to devastating impact of nitrogen, say scientists
More than 150 top international scientists are calling on the world to take urgent action on nitrogen pollution, to tackle the widespread harm it is causing to humans, wildlife and the planet.
How nitrogen-fixing bacteria sense iron
New research reveals how nitrogen-fixing bacteria sense iron - an essential but deadly micronutrient.
Corals take control of nitrogen recycling
Corals use sugar from their symbiotic algal partners to control them by recycling nitrogen from their own ammonium waste.
Foraging for nitrogen
As sessile organisms, plants rely on their ability to adapt the development and growth of their roots in response to changing nutrient conditions.
Inert nitrogen forced to react with itself
Direct coupling of two molecules of nitrogen: chemists from Würzburg and Frankfurt have achieved what was thought to be impossible.
Researchers discover new nitrogen source in Arctic
Scientists have revealed that the partnership between an alga and bacteria is making the essential element nitrogen newly available in the Arctic Ocean.
Scientists reveal impacts of anthropogenic nitrogen discharge on nitrogen transport in global rivers
Scientists found that riverine dissolved inorganic nitrogen in the USA has increased primarily due to the use of nitrogen fertilizers.
Nitrogen gets in the fast lane for chemical synthesis
A new one-step method discovered by synthetic organic chemists at Rice University allows nitrogen atoms to be added to precursor compounds used in the design and manufacture of drugs, pesticides, fertilizers and other products.
More Nitrogen News and Nitrogen Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.