Reorientation and faulting of Pluto due to volatile loading within Sputnik Planitia

James T. Keane, Isamu Matsuyama, Shunichi Kamata, Jordan K. Steckloff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


Pluto is an astoundingly diverse, geologically dynamic world. The dominant feature is Sputnik Planitia-a tear-drop-shaped topographic depression approximately 1,000 kilometres in diameter possibly representing an ancient impact basin. The interior of Sputnik Planitia is characterized by a smooth, craterless plain three to four kilometres beneath the surrounding rugged uplands, and represents the surface of a massive unit of actively convecting volatile ices (N2, CH4 and CO) several kilometres thick. This large feature is very near the Pluto-Charon tidal axis. Here we report that the location of Sputnik Planitia is the natural consequence of the sequestration of volatile ices within the basin and the resulting reorientation (true polar wander) of Pluto. Loading of volatile ices within a basin the size of Sputnik Planitia can substantially alter Pluto's inertia tensor, resulting in a reorientation of the dwarf planet of around 60 degrees with respect to the rotational and tidal axes. The combination of this reorientation, loading and global expansion due to the freezing of a possible subsurface ocean generates stresses within the planet's lithosphere, resulting in a global network of extensional faults that closely replicate the observed fault networks on Pluto. Sputnik Planitia probably formed northwest of its present location, and was loaded with volatiles over million-year timescales as a result of volatile transport cycles on Pluto. Pluto's past, present and future orientation is controlled by feedbacks between volatile sublimation and condensation, changing insolation conditions and Pluto's interior structure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)90-93
Number of pages4
Issue number7631
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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