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Geological Mapping of Sputnik Planitia on Pluto:  On May 1st 2017, Icarus journal published a special issue focusing on science results of the New Horizons flyby of the Pluto system in July 2015. Several Ames-based researchers have published first-author studies within this issue. One such study is the geological mapping of Sputnik Planitia, the giant nitrogen ice “sea” on Pluto, authored by Dr. Oliver White. Sputnik Planitia (note all feature names used are informal) forms the western half of the bright heart-shaped feature called Tombaugh Regio, and has attracted great scientific interest as a regional-scale, geologically active feature located on a planetary body that was expected to be geologically inert prior to encounter.

The map documents the geology and stratigraphy of terrains that are presently being affected to some degree by the action of flowing nitrogen ice. The nitrogen ice plains of Sputnik Planitia display no impact craters, and are undergoing constant resurfacing via convection, glacial flow, and sublimation. Condensation of atmospheric nitrogen onto the surface to form a bright mantle has occurred across broad swathes of Sputnik Planitia, and appears to be partly controlled by Pluto’s obliquity cycles. The action of nitrogen ice has been instrumental in affecting uplands terrain surrounding Sputnik Planitia, and has played a key role in the disruption of Sputnik Planitia’s western margin to form chains of blocky mountain ranges, as well in the extensive erosion by glacial flow of the uplands of east Tombaugh Regio. For its size, the area of Pluto incorporating Sputnik Planitia and its immediate surroundings is perhaps unique within the outer Solar System for displaying such a wide array of geological units that present a great range of surface ages. The source of the ongoing geological activity here derives from Pluto’s special location in the Solar System, where conditions are such that exotic materials such as nitrogen and methane can exist in abundance as solids on the surface, but are still volatile enough such that they can be readily mobilized by both exogenic (climatic cycling) and endogenic (internal radiogenic heating) energy sources. The accompanying figure presents the map and a description of map units.

 POC:  Oliver White:


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