Pluto’s young face explained

Scientists like Wheaton Professor of Geology Geoffrey Collins are continuing to make new discoveries about Pluto nearly a year after NASA’s New Horizons sent back images from a flyby of the dwarf planet.

Two different papers published this month in the journal Nature describe how a closer look at the heart-shaped geographic feature on Pluto’s surface known as Sputnik Planum has revealed a “vigorous” process that essentially gives the planet a facelift every 500,000 to 1 million years.

After examining a pattern of interlocking polygons on the surface of Sputnik Planum, two different groups of scientists concluded that they are likely caused by convection cells, created when nitrogen ice is heated by radioactivity from Pluto’s interior.

This vigorous process could account for why there are no craters in the area—a sign that the surface is much younger than the estimated age of the dwarf planet, Collins said in an article about the discovery published June 1 by The Christian Science Monitor. Though not involved with either research team, Collins is a planetary scientist who has worked on various NASA projects and has investigated geological features on a number of planets, including Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto.

“These two papers are written by two completely different sets of people. One of whom is deeply involved in the New Horizons team and the other is a group that’s outside the team,” Collins told the Monitor. “If you wanted to have some kind of scientific fight, that’s the perfect set up. And yet the two groups reach essentially the same conclusion.”