Pluto’s famous heart powers icy winds on the dwarf planet | Live Science

Pluto’s heart is beating.

The dwarf ’s famous heart-shaped feature, which ’s discovered during its epic July 2015 flyby, drives atmospheric circulation on Pluto, a study suggests.

Most of the action comes courtesy of the heart’s left lobe, a 600-mile-wide (1,000 kilometers) nitrogen- plain called Planitia. This exotic ice vaporizes during the day and condenses into ice again at night, causing nitrogen winds to blow, the researchers determined. ( is dominated by nitrogen, like ’s, though the dwarf planet’s air is about 100,000 times thinner than the stuff we breathe.)  

These winds carry , particles of haze and grains of ice westward, staining the ices with dark streaks.

“This highlights the that Pluto’s and winds — even if the density of the is very low — can impact the ,” study Tanguy Bertrand, an astrophysicist and planetary at NASA’s Ames Center in , . 

And that westward direction is interesting in itself, considering that Pluto spins eastward axis. The dwarf planet’s atmosphere therefore exhibits an “retrorotation,” study members said.

Bertrand and his colleagues studied gathered by during the probe’s 2015 close encounter. The researchers also performed to Pluto’s nitrogen cycle and , especially the dwarf planet’s winds.

This revealed the likely presence of westerly winds — a high-altitude variety that races along at least 2.5 (4 kilometers) above the surface and a fast- type to the ground that follows Sputnik Planitia’s western edge.

That edge is bounded by high cliffs, which appear to trap the near-surface winds inside the Sputnik Planitia basin for a spell before they can escape to the west, the new study suggested.

“It’s very much the kind of thing that’s due to the topography or specifics of the ,” planetary scientist Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, of the Institute in Tucson, , said in the same statement. 

“I’m impressed that Pluto’s have advanced to the point that can talk about regional weather,” added Hansen-Koharcheck, who was not involved in the new study.

New Horizons’ Pluto flyby revealed that the dwarf planet is far more complex and diverse than anyone had , featuring towering -ice mountains and “bladed” terrain in addition to the photogenic heart (whose name, Tombaugh Regio, honors the discoverer of Pluto, ).

The , which was published Tuesday (Feb. 4) in the of Geophysical Research: , reinforces and extends that basic .

“Sputnik Planitia be as for Pluto’s as the ocean is for Earth’s ,” Bertrand said. “If you remove Sputnik Planitia — if you remove the heart of Pluto — you won’t have the same circulation.”

Mike Wall’s book about the for , “” (Grand Central , 2018; illustrated by), is out . Follow him on . Follow on Twitter or

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