Even though New Horizons swept past Pluto last year, more than half the data that it gleaned from the planet during its flyby is still on the spacecraft, which means that there’s still much that we’ll be learning about the dwarf planet. Case in point: methane snow-covered peaks.
That’s what NASA thinks exists in Pluto’s Cthulhu region: the dark splotch that covers a good part of the southern hemisphere. In the feature’s mountainous region, scientists believe that methane snow has settled in the peaks:
Scientists think this bright material could be predominantly methane that has condensed as ice onto the peaks from Pluto’s atmosphere. “That this material coats only the upper slopes of the peaks suggests methane ice may act like water in Earth’s atmosphere, condensing as frost at high altitude,” said John Stansberry, a New Horizons science team member from Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland. Compositional data from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shown in the right inset, indicates that the location of the bright ice on the mountain peaks correlates almost exactly with the distribution of methane ice, shown in false color as purple.
In addition to possibly spotting clouds on dwarf planet, it’s clear that we’re going to learn a lot of incredible things about Pluto’s atmosphere.