Pluto, a dwarf planet located in the outer reaches of our solar system, is known for its unique and mysterious landscapes. One of the most fascinating features on the distant world are its white-peaked mountains, which bear a striking resemblance to the snowy peaks found on Earth. However, unlike Earth’s mountains, the white caps on Pluto are not made of snow, but rather methane frost.
A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications delves deeper into the formation of these alien peaks and the findings are truly remarkable. The study’s lead author, Tanguy Bertrand, an astronomer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said, “Initially, it seemed logical that this high-altitude frost could form like on the Earth.” However, as the research team examined the images captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, they discovered that the formation of these peaks on Pluto is vastly different from how they form on Earth.
The study focused on a specific range of mountains located west of a large heart-shaped glacier on Pluto’s equator. These mountains, which are around two and a half miles tall, are comparable in height to the Alps on Earth, but notably taller in proportion to Pluto’s smaller size. Despite the dwarf planet’s average distance of 40 times farther away from the Sun than Earth, the mountains are still visible due to the faint sunlight that reaches Pluto.
The mountains on Pluto are made of water ice, which can harden at the extremely low temperatures on the dwarf planet, allowing for mountain formation. Bertrand added, “Water ice on Pluto is so cold that it’s hard, just like rock on Earth. That’s why you can make mountains of water ice on Pluto.”
The discovery of these methane frost-capped mountains on Pluto is a testament to the incredible diversity and complexity of our solar system. It also highlights the importance of continued exploration of our celestial neighborhood, as each new discovery on Pluto and other distant worlds brings us one step closer to understanding the mysteries of the universe.