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How a heavy heart made Pluto flip out

Pluto's flip
Sputnik Planitia, the left lobe of Pluto’s “heart,” is thought to have formed as the result of a giant impact early in the dwarf planet’s history. This graphic shows how the icy world reoriented itself as the impact basin filled with volatile ices. (Credit: James Keane / University of Arizona)

Pluto’s famous heart-shaped feature may well have migrated over the course of millions of years as the dwarf planet spun, and that would add to the evidence for a slushy ocean hidden beneath the ice, two groups of scientists say.

In separate reports published today by the journal Nature, the scientists say a reorientation of the faraway world’s most famous feature would provide the best explanation for phenomena observed during last year’s flyby of NASA’s New Horizons probe – including patterns of cracks in the ice.

Most tellingly, it would explain why the heart-shaped feature, known informally as Tombaugh Regio, lines up almost precisely opposite Pluto’s biggest moon, Charon.

“We asked, ‘What’s the chance of that randomly happening?’ And it’s less than 5 percent that it would be so perfectly opposite,” MIT Professor Richard Binzel, a co-author of one of the reports, said in a news release. “And then the question becomes, what was it that caused the alignment?”

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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