Mountains on Pluto are a winter wonderland of methane snow

Pluto and magnified images of mountains

LET IT SNOW  Methane deposits (false-color purple) closely match bright summits (center) seen by the New Horizons spacecraft, suggesting the peaks are capped with methane snow.


Over the ground lies a mantle of white — on Pluto. Snow-capped peaks on the dwarf planet dot an otherwise ruddy terrain. But these snowy summits appear to be composed of methane, not water, researchers report online March 3.

Mountain tops in Pluto’s Cthulhu Regio, a dark landscape abutting the planet’s famous heart, reflect more light than the surrounding area. The New Horizons spacecraft, which flew past Pluto on July 14, found that the bright regions correspond to surface deposits of methane. Mission scientists speculate that perhaps methane in the atmosphere on Pluto behaves like water in the air on Earth, building up on the ground as frost at the highest (and coldest) elevations.

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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