Evidence for a hot start and early ocean formation on Pluto


Pluto is thought to possess a present-day ocean beneath a thick ice shell. It has generally been assumed that Pluto accreted from cold material and then later developed its ocean due to warming from radioactive decay; in this ‘cold start’ scenario, the ice shell would have experienced early compression and more recent extension. Here we compare thermal model simulations with geological observations from the New Horizons mission to suggest that Pluto was instead relatively hot when it formed, with an early subsurface ocean. Such a ‘hot start’ Pluto produces an early, rapid phase of extension, followed by a more prolonged extensional phase, which totals ~0.5% linear strain over the last 3.5 Gyr. The amount of second-phase extension is consistent with that inferred from extensional faults on Pluto; we suggest that an enigmatic ridge–trough system recently identified on Pluto is indicative of early extensional tectonics. A hot initial start can be achieved with the gravitational energy released during accretion if the final stage of Pluto’s accretion is rapid (<30 kyr). A fast final stage of growth is in agreement with models of the formation of Kuiper belt objects via gravitational collapse followed by pebble accretion, and implies that early oceans may have been common in the interiors of large Kuiper belt objects.

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Fig. 1: Representative thermal evolution models for Pluto.
Fig. 2: Stereo topography on Pluto.

Data availability

The topographic data used in this work is available at the PDS Cartography and Imaging Sciences Node (IMG) Annex https://go.nature/2MK0Csd.

Code availability

The model used in this work is freely available at https://github.com/CarverB/IceTherm_HotStart.


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We thank J. Keane and A. Youdin for their helpful comments. C.J.B. acknowledges the University of California Santa Cruz for a dissertation year fellowship that supported this work.

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All authors contributed to the writing and development of ideas within this manuscript. The model used was developed and run by C.J.B.

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Correspondence to Carver J. Bierson.

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Bierson, C.J., Nimmo, F. & Stern, S.A. Evidence for a hot start and early ocean formation on Pluto. Nat. Geosci. 13, 468–472 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-020-0595-0

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