Pluto’s snowcapped mountains are unlike any other planet on Earth

Mountain terrain with bright patches seen from above, in two large rectangles.

Comparison of the snow-capped mountains in the Chathulhu Makula on Pluto (left) with the Alps Earth meaning (right). Image by NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / SWRI / Thomas Pesquet / ESA / Eureka Alert!.

Their tall peaks reach the sky and the snow-capped mountains on earth are beautiful, glistening with snow in the sun. Other planets, such as Mars and Venus and some moons, also have mountains, but they lack the beautiful snow cover of the Earth’s mountains. A notable exception, however, was discovered by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015, when it succeeded in reaching the outer reaches of our solar system. I’m talking about Pluto’s snowcapped mountains!

Not only does Pluto have mountains, which was a little surprising given its small size, but Pluto’s mountains also have snow on its peaks. There is a significant difference between the mountains of Earth and Pluto. The “snow” or ice on Pluto contains static methane (CH4) instead of water ice crystals.

Meanwhile, the mountains of Pluto itself are composed of rock-hard water ice.

The new research was announced on October 13, 2020 by an international team of scientists led by researchers at the Center National de la Richeri Scientific (CNRS) in France.

The relevant peer-reviewed paper was published Nature Communications On the same day.

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ParoD's sky over a vast panorama of awakened mountains.

Snowcapped mountains on Earth. Sudip Aich captured this image of the Himalayas at sunrise at Sandakafu, the highest point of Darjeeling district on the West Bengal-Nepal border. The peak on which it stood was 11,900 feet (3,627 m). From this spot, you can see the 5 highest peaks in the world, Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lohatse and Makalu.

A colored planet-like sphere with two insects showing mountains from orbit.

Look bigger. | A detailed study of the methane snowcapped Pigafita montes mountain range in the Chathulhu macula on Pluto as seen by New Horizons on July 14, 2015, a new study explains how ice falls on Pluto’s mountains. That way. The resolution of this image is approximately 2,230 feet (680 meters) per pixel. The image measures approximately 280 miles (450 km) long and 140 miles (225 km) wide. Image by NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute / Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The ice on Pluto’s mountains – especially Chathulhu Makula (formerly known as Chathulhu Regio) – is part of a cycle reminiscent of Earth’s water cycle, but consolidates traces of methane in Pluto’s thin atmosphere instead of water vapor. Researchers used the climate model to find out how methane ice could be produced in Pluto’s non-Earth-like conditions. They discovered that Pluto’s mountain peaks were the only places High enough Methane so itude in the low world To be able to Solid from the atmosphere. From the paper:

Here we show that the bright snow seen in Chattulhu is mostly made up of CH4 rich ice. We then use Pluto’s statistical climate model to investigate the origin of their formation. Our simulations reproduce the accumulation of high CH altitude CH4 ice where snow-capped mountains are observed, especially on the shores and arrests of Pigafeta and Elcono Montes in eastern Cthulhu. They show that CH4 condensation is favored by stimulus-induced circulatory cells that seasonally enrich the atmosphere with that atmospheric methane at that alt altitude.

Overall, the formation of CH4 snow on the tops of Pluto’s mountains goes through a completely different process than the formation of the Snook Appad Mountains on Earth, according to our Mtdale. It is noteworthy that two phenomena and two materials that are very inconsistent can produce the same landscape, when viewed in the same resolution.

Two figures of blue mountains with white peaks, showing different airflow patterns.

Comparison of Pluto and the snow-capped mountains on Earth. Image by Tangui Bertrand and others. Eureka Alert!.

Photos of seven multi-colored orbits of mountains with colored patches.

Look bigger. | Discovery of methane ice “ice” on the peaks of Pigafita montes and Elcono montes in the Cthulhu macula on Pluto. Image by Tangui Bertrand and others. Nature Communications.

These findings also help solve another mystery as to why glaciers on Pluto, made of methane, have crazy ridges on them, while Earth’s glaciers, made of water ice, have smooth surfaces. As described in the paper:

Pluto is covered by numerous deposits of methane, either dissolved in nitrogen or as ice rich in methane. In the dark equatorial region of Cthulhu, bright methane-containing frost is found coating crater rims and walls as well as mountain tops, providing striking resemblance to terrestrial snowcapped mountain chains. However, the origin of these deposits remained a mystery. Here we report that it is made of ice rich in methane. We use high-resolution numerical simulations of Pluto’s climate to show that the processes it creates are likely to be completely different for high-itude altitude snowpack makers on Earth. Methane deposits may not result from adiabatic cooling in the air moving upwards like our planet, but the rotation-induced enrichment of aerated methane a few kilometers above Pluto’s plains that favors methane condensation on mountain peaks. This process could have shaped other methane reservoirs on Pluto and the blades of Tartarus dorsa could have helped explain the landscape.

Tangui Bertrand, lead author of the study at the NASA AIIMS Research Center, told CNN:

Pluto is covered by foreign-formed ices and its landscape resembles the polar caps on Earth (Greenland and Antarctica). New Horizons also discovered spectacular mountains on Pluto that were covered by bright deposits, similar to the snook .pd mountain chains found on Earth. Such a landscape was not seen anywhere else in the solar system. Does Pluto’s atmosphere behave like Earth’s? We discovered that a new and unique (in the solar system) atmospheric process created these icy mountains on Pluto.

Partial orbit of the globe with both smooth white and rough red terrain

New Horizon view of Sputnik Planetia on Pluto, a vast, smooth field of nitrogen ice glaciers that make up half of Pluto’s “heart” feature. Pluto also has cryovolcanos (ice volcanoes) and an underwater ocean, making it a surprisingly geographically active world. Image by NASA / SRRI / JHUAPL / Science News.

On Earth, the temperature in the atmosphere decreases with the elevation. However, the opposite happens on Pluto. Its thin atmosphere is warmed by the sun and the temperature rises to higher levels as you go, allowing methane to condense on mountain tops. As Bertrand explains:

At its contact the air cools and flows down the slope. Pluto’s atmosphere contains more aerated methane at its warmer, higher altitudes, allowing it to freeze directly on mountain peaks high enough to satisfy the gas and reach the rich region. At low altitudes, the amount of aerated methane is low, and does not decrease.

This discovery teaches us that there are still many physical and dynamic processes in space that we do not know about, and that the climate may be very different from Earth’s (despite forming a similar landscape). It is important to study the bodies of Pluto and other planets because they are natural laboratories for exploring and investigating possible variations in the atmosphere (and geology and other planetary science) that give us a better perspective on our own climate.

A smiling man with a glacier behind him.

Lead author of the new study Tangu Bertrand at NASA’s AIIMS Research Center. Image by Tangui Bertrand.

An amazing example of how the snowcap cycle on Pluto was discovered Active This cold, distant dwarf planet really is. Pluto also has huge, smooth glaciers of nitrogen ice, such as the Sputnik Planum, a neck of methane ice, and the quaint “blade terrain” as high as a skyscraper with snow blades. There may also be cryovolcanos – ice volcanoes and submerged seas. This tiny world is surprisingly geographically active despite being so small and so far away from the sun. It’s even five moons!

However, his visit to Pluto was only a short flyover, New Horizon has already changed our knowledge of this small world, and its findings will keep scientists busy for decades to come.

Bottom line: Pluto has snow on the mountain tops like Earth, but these snow apes are made of frozen methane, not water ice. A new study shows how they form in such an Earth-like atmosphere.

Source: The equatorial mountains on Pluto are covered by methane frost as a result of a unique atmospheric process

By Eureka Alert!


Paul Scott Anderson