NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has recently spotted an “exotic” snow-capped mountain range just like on Earth, except that the “snow” on Pluto is actually atmospheric methane that has morphed into ice onto the frigid mountaintops.
NASA scientists said that the mountains are located in the south-eastern part of a 1,850 mile-long and 450-mile-wide region called Cthulhu. The region is so vast that it covers nearly half of the planet’s equator. In the east, the region meets the large system of nitrogen ice plains called the Sputnik Planum.
Cthulhu is dotted by mountains ranges, cracks, and craters, having an intriguing geology. The newly discovered snowcapped mountain range is located between several craters. Each mountain is separated by steep-sided valleys.
New Horizons could easily spot the mountain peaks because their color is in a stark contrast with Cthulhu’s dark reddish plains. Researchers estimate that the snow-like material is condensed methane.
They noticed that only the upper regions of the peaks are covered in the bright methane ice just like ice on our planet condenses at high altitudes. New Horizons team could detect the snow-capped mountains in an image provided by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The image covers 2,230 feet for every pixel.
The probe snapped the photo from a 21,100-mile distance above Pluto, about an hour before its historic flyby of the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015.
In February, New Horizons team reported another intriguing finding. Scientists detected huge chunks of water ice ‘floating’ in a frozen nitrogen sea on the planet. The iceberg-like features were spotted in the Sputnik Planum.
The discovery filled scientists with hope that they could find more water ice on Pluto and even a liquid sea. NASA team noted that the new discoveries are another example of how geologically diverse Pluto really is.
Scientists explained that water ice can ‘float’ in an area filled with frozen nitrogen because water ice is less dense than nitrogen ice. So, the mile-long chunks of water ice can move across the surface of a nitrogen sea just like icebergs do on our planet.
According to NASA researchers, Pluto’s crust is mainly made of water ice, but as seasons change more types of ice emerge such as methane ice. Spectral imagery has show that large areas including Sputnik Planum have little water ice content.
This means that the area may be covered with more volatile ices that can prevent the spectral signature of water ice from reaching New Horizons’ instruments.
Image Source: Flickr