New constraints on pluto's sputnik planitia ice sheet from a coupled reorientation-climate model

Perianne E. Johnson, James T. Keane, Leslie A. Young, Isamu Matsuyama

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


We present a coupled reorientation and climate model, to understand how true polar wander (TPW) and atmospheric condensation worked together to create the Sputnik Planitia (SP) ice sheet and reorient it to its presentday location on Pluto. SP is located at 18°N, 178°E, very close to the anti-Charon point, and it has been previously shown that this location can be explained by TPW reorientation of an impact basin as it fills with N2 ice. We readdress that hypothesis while including a more accurate treatment of Pluto's climate and orbital obliquity cycle. Our model again finds that TPW is a viable mechanism for the formation and present-day location of SP. We find that the initial impact basin could have been located north of the present-day location, at latitudes between 35°N and 50°N. The empty basin is constrained to be 2.5-3 km deep, with enough N2 available to form at most a 1-2 km thick ice sheet. Larger N2 inventories reorient too close to the anti-Charon point. After reaching the final location, the ice sheet undergoes short periods of sublimation and recondensation on the order of 10 m of ice, due to Pluto's variable obliquity cycle, which drives short periods of reorientation of a few kilometers. The obliquity cycle also has a role in the onset of infilling; some initial basin locations are only able to begin accumulating N2 ice at certain points during the obliquity cycle. We also explore the sensitivity of the coupled model to albedo, initial obliquity, and Pluto's orbit.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number194
JournalPlanetary Science Journal
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Geophysics


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