Three billion miles away, on an object formerly known as the planet Pluto (now sadly demoted to the dwarf planet Pluto), there exists a plain of polygonal cells 10-40 km across, extending over a region of about 1200 km diameter. Last year, the New Horizons mission photographed this region and these strange shapes (see photo) as the probe flew past Pluto and its moon Charon. But what could have caused them, and perhaps more importantly for this website, can we see the same thing closer to home and specifically in a cup of coffee? Well, the answer to those questions are yes and probably, so what on Earth is happening on Pluto?
Pluto moves in an highly elliptical orbit with an average distance to the Sun of 5.9 billion km (3.7 billion miles). Each Pluto year is 248 Earth years but one day on Pluto is only 6½ Earth days. As it is so far from the Sun, it is very cold on Pluto’s surface, somewhere between -238 to -218 ºC. The polygons that were photographed by New Horizons are in the ‘Sputnik Planum’ basin where the temperatures are at the lower end of that scale, somewhere around -238 ºC. At this temperature, nitrogen gas (which makes up 78% of the Earth’s own atmosphere) has not just liquified, it has solidified; turned into nitrogen ice. These polygons are made of solid nitrogen.
But solid nitrogen is a very odd type of solid and in fact, at the temperatures on Pluto’s surface, solid nitrogen is expected to flow with a very high viscosity (like an extremely gloopy liquid). And it is this fact that is the clue to the origin of the odd polygons (and the link to fluids like coffee). Pluto is not just a cold dead rock circling the Sun, but instead it has a warm interior, heated by the radioactive decay of elements in the rocks making up Pluto. This means that the base of the nitrogen ice in the Sputnik Planum basin is being heated and, as two groups writing earlier this summer in Nature showed, this leads to the nitrogen ice in the basin forming convection currents. The warmer nitrogen ‘ice’ at the bottom of the basin flows towards the surface forming convection patterns. It is these nitrogen convection cells that appear as the polygons on the surface of Pluto.
Of course, convection occurs in coffee too, we can see it when we add milk to the coffee and watch the patterns form or by observing the dancing caustics in a cup of tea. So why is it that we see stable polygons of nitrogen on the surface of Pluto but not coffee polygons on the surface of our coffee? The first point to note is the time-scale. Although the polygons on Pluto are moving, they are doing so much more slowly than the liquid movement in a cup of tea or coffee, at a rate of only a few cm per year. But secondly, the type of convection may be different. Although both of the papers in Nature attributed the polygons on Pluto to convection, they differed in the type of convection that they considered was happening. McKinnon et al., suggest that the viscosity of the nitrogen on Pluto is much greater on the surface of the basin than in the warmer interior and so the surface flows far more slowly. This leads to cells that are much wider than they are deep. We would not expect such a drastic change in the viscosity of the coffee between the (cool) top and (warm) bottom of the cup! In contrast, Trowbridge et al., think that the cells are Rayleigh-Bénard convection cells, circular convection cells that form such that the cells are as wide as they are deep. This sort of convection is seen in a coffee cup as well as in the sky on cloudy days: On the Earth, clouds often form at the top (or bottom) of Rayleigh-Benard cells, where hot humid air meets cold dry air (more info here). But to form cells that you can see in your coffee (such as are on the surface of Pluto) you would need the coffee to be in a fairly thin layer and heated from below. You would also need some way of visualising the cells, either with an infra-red camera or with powder suspended in the liquid, it would be hard I think to see it in coffee alone. However, you can see these cells in cooking oil as this video shows:
As well as providing the link to the coffee, the different types of convection on the surface of Pluto hypothesised by Trowbridge and McKinnon have consequences for our understanding of the geology of Pluto. If the cells are formed through Rayleigh-Bénard convection (Trowbridge), the basin has to be as deep as the cells are wide (meaning the basin has to be 10-40km deep with nitrogen ice). If McKinnon is correct on the other hand, the basin only needs to be 3-6 km deep. It is easy to imagine that an impact crater could cause a shallow crater such as that needed for McKinnon’s mechanism. A deeper crater would create another puzzle.
If you do manage to heat coffee (or tea) from below and form some lovely Rayleigh-Bénard cells while doing so I’d love to see the photos or video. Please do contact me either by email, Facebook or Twitter. Otherwise, if you just enjoy watching the patterns form on your coffee, it’s worth remembering that there could be an entire cosmos in that cup.