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NASA Scientists say, Pluto’s Icy Heart is very much Alive and Kicking

Inside the region known as Sputnik Planum, Strange shapes were seen that suggest the tiny world is constantly repaving its surface with churning ice

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Spherical mosaic of New Horizons images showing the expanse of Sputnik Planum (released September 10, 2015). Image source: Wikipedia
  • Scientists find evidence that Pluto’s surfaces are re-paved through convection every 500,000 years
  • The energy to power this activity comes from decaying radioactive elements
  • The movement of nitrogen ice layers helps power the planet’s atmosphere

The primary attraction of the photos that were sent back from NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft, which made a 2015 voyage around Pluto, was the huge heart shape on the planet’s surface. The heart shape is considered to be a plain named Sputnik Planum that has no visible craters that were detectable by New Horizons, leading to the conclusion that it is less than 2 million years old.

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The heart-shaped Sputnik Planum undergoes a very interesting internal activity through which its surface is repaved every 500,000 years. This period may seem very slow on the human clock, but scientists say 500,000 years is rapid on the geographical timeline.

The process, called convection, replaces older nitrogen ice sheets with newer ones, with the help of reservoirs that are several miles deep. The newer layers of ice spread out on the surface and replenish any craters that might have formed, making the plain look perpetually youthful.

Pluto
New Horizons Probe

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“We found evidence that even on a distant cold planet billions of miles from Earth, there is sufficient energy for vigorous geological activity, as long as you have ‘the right stuff,’ meaning something as soft and pliable as solid nitrogen,” noted William McKinnon, who is co-investigator on the New Horizons science team.

The energy to power the continuous processes revolving around convection has its source in the decaying radioactive elements embedded in the surface.

“Not only is it the heart of Pluto, it’s the beating heart,” says Bill McKinnon of Washington University in St Louis. “There are actually things happening. If we were to come back in 100,000 years, the pattern would be markedly altered.”

It is yet uncertain whether this feature is unique to Pluto’s surface, or it is also common to other planets found in the neighborhood of Pluto, such as Makemake or Eris. Celestial bodies in the Kuiper Belt could also possess these surfaces. The constant movement of nitrogen ice sheets is believed to help support Pluto’s atmosphere.

-by Saurabh Bodas, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @saurabhbodas96

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Koch to Set Record for Longest Spaceflight by Woman, Will Spend 328 Days in Space

"One month down. Ten to go," Koch wrote Wednesday on Twitter. "Privileged to contribute my best every single day of it"

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astronaut, longest spaceflight, record
FILE - In this April 8, 2019, photo made available by NASA, astronaut and Expedition 59 Flight Engineer Christina Koch works on U.S. spacesuits inside the Quest airlock of the International Space Station. VOA

A female astronaut is due to set a record for the longest spaceflight by a woman, the U.S. space agency said Wednesday, the same astronaut who was to have been in the first all-female spacewalk scrapped over lack of a right-sized spacesuit.

Astronaut Christina Koch, who completed the space walk with a man instead of a female colleague last month, will remain in orbit on board the International Space Station until February, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said.

Part of NASA’s study of the effects of long spaceflights on the human body, Koch will spend 328 days in space.

The 40-year-old astronaut has been in orbit since last month.

“One month down. Ten to go,” Koch wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “Privileged to contribute my best every single day of it.”

astronaut, longest flight
FILE – U.S. astronaut Christina Koch, member of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station (ISS), looks on prior the launch of Soyuz MS-12 space ship at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, March 14, 2019. VOA

In late March, NASA canceled what would have been the first all-female spacewalk with Koch and astronaut Anne McClain due to a lack of a spacesuit in the right size for McClain.

The walk was would have occurred during the final week of Women’s History Month.

On board the orbiting space station, astronauts work on a range of experiments in biology, biotechnology, health, earth, space and other sciences.

The typical stay for astronauts is six months, NASA said.

“NASA is looking to build on what we have learned with additional astronauts in space for more than 250 days,” Jennifer Fogarty, a chief scientist for NASA’s Human Research Program, said in a statement.

longest spacecraft, women
Part of NASA’s study of the effects of long spaceflights on the human body, Koch will spend 328 days in space. Pixabay

Record holders

Astronaut Peggy Whitson holds the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, staying in orbit 288 days in 2016 and 2017, NASA said.

“It’s my honor to follow in Peggy’s footsteps,” Koch said in a video from the International Space Station, orbiting over 200 miles (322 km) above Earth.

ALSO READ: SpaceX Launches Second Supersized ‘Falcon’ Heavy Rocket, For the First Time Lands all Three Boosters

Of the more than 500 people who have traveled to space, fewer than 11 percent have been women. But Koch graduated from NASA’s 2013 class of astronauts that was 50 percent women.

The overall NASA record of 340 days, set in 2016, is held by astronaut Scott Kelly in an experiment to compare his physical and mental health to his identical twin Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth. (VOA)