Images beamed back by the New Horizons spacecraft show Pluto's mountaintops covered by snow, eerily resembling snow-capped mountaintops on Earth.
Pluto is really an amazing place. Although no longer classified as a planet, Pluto remains one of the solar system’s most charismatic (dwarf) planet.
It was visited not so long ago by NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft, which helped us see its surface details like never before. We obtained unprecedented images of Pluto and its moons as the spacecraft zoomed past the dwarf planet.
As it traveled towards the solar system’s outermost limits, the New Horizons spacecraft gathered a plethora of data about Pluto and its moons, helping scientists better understand the distant dwarf planet, how it formed, and what its surface is like.
The images beamed back by New Horizons are striking, and many of these images show uncanny similarities to our planet. For example, there is this striking image of Pluto, which shows a thin blueish atmosphere.
This image offers an unprecedented view at some of the surface details on the dwarf planet, and this image here shows unique characteristics on its surface resembling a heart emoji.
But there are other images as well, like the one below, which shows Pluto’s mountaintops covered by snow, strangely resembling snow-covered mountain tops on Earth.
Yes, there is snow on Pluto, but it is unlike that of Earth.
In 2015, the New Horizons mission discovered spectacular snow-capped mountains on Pluto (Pluto is a complex world of ice mountains and frozen plains), which are strikingly similar to mountains on Earth. Never before has such a landscape been observed anywhere else in the Solar System.
However, as atmospheric temperatures on our planet decrease with altitude, on Pluto, they heat up at higher altitudes due to solar radiation.
This leads experts to question where the snow-ice comes from?
An international team led by scientists from CNRS decided to find out.
They first determined that the “snow” on Pluto’s mountains actually consists of frozen methane, with traces of this gas present in Pluto’s atmosphere, much like water vapor on Earth.
To understand how the same landscape could be produced under such different conditions, they used a climate model for the dwarf planet, which revealed that due to its particular dynamics, Pluto’s atmosphere is rich in methane gas at higher altitudes.
As explained by researchers in their study published in Nature Communications, “The methane deposits may not result from adiabatic cooling in upwardly moving air like on our planet, but from a circulation-induced enrichment of gaseous methane a few kilometers above Pluto’s plains that favors methane condensation at mountain summits.”
The researcher team added that processes like this one might have shaped other methane reservoirs on the dwarf planet, helping explain the appearance of the bladed terrain on Pluto’s Tartarus Dorsa.
Thanks to Pluto being rich in methane at higher altitudes, only at mountain peaks that are high enough to reach this methane-enriched zone does the air contain enough methane for it to condense.
This does not happen at lower altitudes. There, according to scientists, the air is too low in methane for ice to form.
This research could also explain why the thick glaciers of methane were observed elsewhere on Pluto bristle with spectacular rugged ridges, unlike the flat glaciers on Earth, which consist of water.
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Sources and references: Nature Communications / All additional sources and references are linked throughout this article.