NASA’s mission to Pluto shares its latest X-Files

Image: Pluto's Sputnik Planum
This image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows patterns in the nitrogen glaciers of an area nicknamed Sputnik Planum – including an “X” to the right and below the image’s center. The darker patch at the center of the image is probably a dirty block of water ice “floating” in the denser nitrogen. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

If “X-Files” are defined as data about weird and alien phenomena, NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto has X-Files galore. And this week, the mission’s science team shared an X-File with an actual X on it.

The timing of Thursday’s image release couldn’t be much better, coming just a couple of weeks before “The X-Files” (the TV show, that is) returns to Fox for a six-episode run. But this is no publicity stunt; rather, it illustrates how weird geology can get on a world that features glaciers of frozen nitrogen.

The semi-solid nitrogen in a region informally known as Sputnik Planum slowly burbles up and down, due to thermal convection. When blobs of nitrogen rise up and press against each other, patterns of lines mark the boundaries between the blobs. When the blobs subside, the lines disappear.

“This part of Pluto is acting like a lava lamp, if you can imagine a lava lamp as wide as, and even deeper than, the Hudson Bay,” William McKinnon, a researcher from Washington University in St. Louis who’s the deputy lead of the New Horizons geology, geophysics and imaging team, said in a NASA feature.

The results can be seen in a mosaic of Sputnik Planum imagery.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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