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Pluto heart geology
This map of the left side of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature uses colors to represent Pluto’s varied terrains, which helps scientists understand the complex geological processes at work. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the scientists behind NASA’s New Horizons mission are sharing a map that brings a different perspective to Pluto’s heart.

The map shows clearly that the dwarf planet’s bright heart-shaped region, informally known as Tombaugh Regio, can be broken into two geologically distinct areas.

The left side is dominated by an icy plain of frozen nitrogen, called Sputnik Planum. This is the part of the heart that’s dissected in the New Horizons team’s color-coded chart.

The map covers an area that measures 1,290 miles from top to bottom, which is roughly the width of the United States from north to south. You can see how Sputnik Planum’s ice is broken up into cells (shown in shades of light blue and green) that are bordered by troughs (shown as black lines).

The purple blotches indicate the mountain ranges that line Sputnik Planum’s western border. The rugged highlands known as Cthulhu Regio are mapped in dark brown. The pink spots mark the scattered, floating hills at the plain’s eastern edge.

Way down south, there’s a valentine-red blotch that represents Wright Mons, which is thought to be an ice volcano. To the east, you can see the highlands of Tombaugh Regio in orange-brown.

Map key
Scientists use 29 different colors in a map of Sputnik Planum on Pluto. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The map is designed to help New Horizons’ scientists figure out the chronology behind the heart’s geology.

“By studying how the boundaries between units crosscut one another, mission scientists can determine which units overlie others, and assemble a relative chronology for the different units,” the science team explains in Thursday’s image advisory. “For example, the yellow craters (at left, on the western edge of the map) must have formed after their surrounding terrain.”

The color-coded view was generated using images that were obtained by New Horizons’ LORRI imager about an hour and 40 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14, when the spacecraft was 48,000 miles away.

Does this version of the heart look too clinical for Valentine’s Day? If so, feel free to feast your eyes on NASA’s happy-face Pluto valentine instead.

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