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

  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 06 July 2016


The vast, deep, volatile-ice-filled basin informally named Sputnik Planum is central to Pluto’s vigorous geological activity1,2. Composed of molecular nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide ices3, but dominated by nitrogen ice, this layer is organized into cells or polygons, typically about 10 to 40 kilometres across, that resemble the surface manifestation of solid-state convection1,2. Here we report, on the basis of available rheological measurements4, that solid layers of nitrogen ice with a thickness in excess of about one kilometre should undergo convection for estimated present-day heat-flow conditions on Pluto. More importantly, we show numerically that convective overturn in a several-kilometre-thick layer of solid nitrogen can explain the great lateral width of the cells. The temperature dependence of nitrogen-ice viscosity implies that the ice layer convects in the so-called sluggish lid regime5, a unique convective mode not previously definitively observed in the Solar System. Average surface horizontal velocities of a few centimetres a year imply surface transport or renewal times of about 500,000 years, well under the ten-million-year upper-limit crater retention age for Sputnik Planum2. Similar convective surface renewal may also occur on other dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt, which may help to explain the high albedos shown by some of these bodies.

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Figure 1: Image, topographic and map views of Sputnik Planum, Pluto.
Figure 2: High-resolution images of cellular terrain within SP.
Figure 3: Minimum thickness for convection in a layer of solid N2 ice on Pluto, as a function of basal temperature.
Figure 4: Example numerical model of N2 ice convection in SP.


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New Horizons was built and operated by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, USA, for NASA. We thank the many engineers who have contributed to the success of the New Horizons mission, and NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) for a decade of support of New Horizons. This work was supported by NASA’s New Horizons project.

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W.B.M. led the study and wrote the paper, with substantial input from F.N.; T.W. and J.H.R. performed the CitCom finite element convection calculations; P.M.S. developed the software to create stereographic and photoclinometric digital elevation models (DEMs) using New Horizons LORRI and MVIC images, and created the preliminary DEM for SP; O.L.W. mapped the SP region using New Horizons images in ArcGIS; J.M.M., J.R.S., A.D.H, O.M.U. and S.A.S. contributed to the understanding of the multiple roles N2 ice plays in the geology of SP and its environs. S.A.S., H.A.W., C.B.O., L.A.Y. and K.E.S. are the lead scientists of the New Horizons project. The entire Geology, Geophysics, and Imaging Theme Team (listed) contributed to the success of the Pluto encounter.

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Correspondence to William B. McKinnon.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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All spacecraft data and higher-order products presented in this Letter will be delivered to NASA’s Planetary Data System ( in a series of stages in 2016 and 2017 because of the time required to fully downlink and calibrate the data set.

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McKinnon, W., Nimmo, F., Wong, T. et al. Convection in a volatile nitrogen-ice-rich layer drives Pluto’s geological vigour. Nature 534, 82–85 (2016).

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