Status Report

Convection in a volatile nitrogen-ice-rich layer drives Pluto’s geological vigor

By SpaceRef Editor
March 13, 2019
Filed under , ,

William B. McKinnon, Francis Nimmo, Teresa Wong, Paul M. Schenk, Oliver L. White, J. H. Roberts, J. M. Moore, J. R. Spencer, A. D. Howard, O. M. Umurhan, S. A. Stern, H. A. Weaver, C.B. Olkin, L. A. Young, K. E. Smith (New Horizons Geology Geophysics and Imaging Theme Team), R. Beyer, R.P. Binzel, M. Buie, B. Buratti, A. Cheng, D. Cruikshank, C.Dalle Ore, A. Earle, R. Gladstone, W. Grundy, T.Lauer, I. Linscott, J. Parker, S. Porter, H. Reitsema, D. Reuter, S. Robbins, M. Showalter, K. Singer, D. Strobel, M. Summers, L. Tyler, H. Weaver, M. Banks, O. Barnouin, V. Bray, B. Carcich, A. Chaikin, C. Chavez, C. Conrad, D. Hamilton, C. Howett, J. Hofgartner, J. Kammer, C. Lisse, A. Marcotte, A. Parker, K. Retherford, M. Saina, K. Runyon, E. Schindhelm, J. Stansberry, A. Steffl, T. Stryk, . H. Throop, C. Tsang, A. Verbiscer, H. Winters, A. Zangari

(Submitted on 13 Mar 2019)

The vast, deep, volatile-ice-filled basin informally named Sputnik Planum is central to Pluto’s geological activity[1,2]. Composed of molecular nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide ices[3], but dominated by N2-ice, this ice layer is organized into cells or polygons, typically ~10-40 km across, that resemble the surface manifestation of solid state convection[1,2]. Here we report, based on available rheological measurements[4], that solid layers of N2 ice approximately greater than 1 km thick should convect for estimated present-day heat flow conditions on Pluto. More importantly, we show numerically that convective overturn in a several-km-thick layer of solid nitrogen can explain the great lateral width of the cells. The temperature dependence of N2-ice viscosity implies that the SP ice layer convects in the so-called sluggish lid regime[5], a unique convective mode heretofore not definitively observed in the Solar System. Average surface horizontal velocities of a few cm/yr imply surface transport or renewal times of ~500,000 years, well under the 10 Myr upper limit crater retention age for Sputnik Planum[2]. Similar convective surface renewal may also occur on other dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt, which may help explain the high albedos of some of them.

Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)

Journal reference: Nature, 534, 82-85 (2016)

DOI: 10.1038/nature18289

Cite as: arXiv:1903.05571 [astro-ph.EP]

  (or arXiv:1903.05571v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)

Submission history

From: Kelsi Singer [view email] 

[v1] Wed, 13 Mar 2019 16:11:41 UTC (7,238 KB)

SpaceRef staff editor.