Ice-capped mountains discovered on Pluto • Earth.com

Last update: December 1st, 2020 at 2:00 pm

Today’s Image of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory features a close-up view of Pluto captured by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. 

A new study published in Nature Communications has revealed that some of the mountains discovered on Pluto during the New Horizons flyby are covered by a blanket of methane ice.

Using numerical simulations from the planet’s climate, the scientists determined that the ice caps detected on Mars are created through very different processes than they are on Earth.

On Pluto, the atmosphere actually gets warmer with altitude, rather than colder like on Earth. However, the atmosphere of Pluto is too thin to affect the surface temperatures at high elevations. 

“It is particularly remarkable to see that two very similar landscapes on Earth and Pluto can be created by two very dissimilar processes,” said study lead author Tanguy Bertrand, who is a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Though theoretically objects like Neptune’s moon Triton could have a similar process, no other place in our solar system has ice-capped mountains like this besides Earth.”

The research team determined that Pluto has more gaseous methane at its warmer, higher altitudes. This methane gas can saturate, condense, and then freeze directly on mountain peaks, which is the exact opposite of the sublimation process on Earth.

“Pluto really is one of the best natural laboratories we have to explore the physical and dynamic processes involved when compounds that regularly transition between solid and gas states interact with a planetary surface,” said Bertrand. “The New Horizons flyby revealed astonishing glacial landscapes we continue to learn from.”

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory 

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

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