Months after the historic 2015 Pluto flyby made by the spacecraft New Horizons this past summer, scientists at NASA are piecing together geographical maps to suss out the dwarf planet's terrain — and with it, begin to understand the ways in which Pluto geologically formed from millions upon millions of years ago up until now.

Even more pertinent for this upcoming Valentine's Day? The area they're focusing on has been nicknamed the planet's "broken heart."

To be clear, the geologists over at NASA aren't charting the terra firma of the spherical body once known as the ninth planet of our solar system: rather, they're plotting an area of Pluto that measures around 1,290 miles (2,070 kilometers) in length and contains a diverse array of geological miscellany found on the dwarf's surface. The area itself is grounded by the Sputnik Planum — a broken plain made up of nitrogen-ice and apparently similar to the Hudson Bay in terms of its size — with the rest of the geological array ranging from "rugged, heavily cratered material" to plateaus to areas with a "washboard-like texture" surrounding the area.

So, what methods are the NASA team using to come up with a definitive idea of the planet's morphology? If you haven't already guessed, it all traces back to New Horizons and the myriad images the probe took of the dwarf planet's surface during its Pluto mission, which lasted less than 48 hours after nine years of space travel to its celestial destination, a journey roughly 4.5 light years away. While it will still take more than a year for all of the data New Horizons collected to transmit back to our planet, enough hi-res images of the Sputnik Planum exist "approximately 1,050 feet (320 meters) per pixel or better" for the geologists to piece it together — or as NASA stated in an official release, "map units with relative confidence" (to get an idea of what process and map-oriented legend NASA's scientific team is using, check out the example below).

So, why study the morphology and plot the geology of Pluto in the first place? To essentially understand the planet's history — how it came to be so pockmarked, rubbly and rugged, why certain terrestrial outcroppings like fields of ice formed where they did, and, as NASA put it, "for gauging what processes have operated where on Pluto, and when they occurred relative to other processes at work."

In the end, if you're feeling bad about being alone on Valentine's Day, just know that you're not the only one with a broken heart — deep out there in space, Pluto has one, too.

To learn more about Pluto's terrain, check out NASA's video clip below.

 

Source: NASA

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