Like Earth, the dwarf planet of Pluto has mountains. Like their earthly cousins, some of those peaks are covered in blankets of white. But the origins of these ice-like deposits are very different.
According to new research published on October 13, 2020, in Nature Communications, some of the mountains discovered on Pluto during the flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015 are covered by a blanket of methane ice. An international team of scientists analyzed data from Pluto’s atmosphere and surface and used numerical simulations of its climate to reveal that these ice caps are created through different processes than they are on Earth.
The study authors noted that “within the dark equatorial region of Cthulhu, bright frost containing methane is observed coating crater rims and walls as well as mountain tops, providing spectacular resemblance to terrestrial snow-capped mountain chains.”
The image at the top left was acquired on July 14, 2015, when the New Horizons spacecraft approached Pluto. The Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) detected the presence of patchy bright deposits atop the Pigafetta Montes and Elcano Montes mountain ranges. The spacecraft’s Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (data not shown) revealed signatures of methane.
The top right image is a natural-color view of a section of the Alps range in Europe and was acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite on March 19, 2020.
On Earth, atmospheric temperatures decrease with altitude, and that cool air chills land surfaces at high elevations. When a moist wind moves toward and over a mountain on Earth, its water vapor cools and condenses, forming clouds and snow, as seen on mountaintops like the Alps.
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