In 2015, the spacecraft "New Horizons" first took unique images of Pluto. Never before have scientists had the opportunity to study the complex landscape of this dwarf planet

NRK: Unraveled the mystery of the snowy peaks of Pluto

In the pictures of Pluto, scientists were surprised to find a landscape very similar to that of the Earth’s mountains. But if the higher the Earth, the colder it is, the opposite is true for Pluto. So where did snow and glaciers come from on tops? The researchers finally managed to answer this question, reports the Norwegian television company NRK.

In 2015, the spacecraft “New Horizons” first took unique images of Pluto. Never before have scientists had the opportunity to study the complex landscape of this dwarf planet. The photos caused a lot of excitement. In particular, they depict mountains with white peaks very similar to those we have on Earth.

“Pluto is a very interesting planet. Until 2015, we thought it was just a small dead, an icy celestial body. But the photos showed us absolutely incredible landscapes,” geologist Hans Erik Voss Amundsen explained.
Since then, scientists have been trying to figure out what these snowy peaks are on the dwarf planet, Pluto. No other planet in the solar system has ever seen such landscapes, with the exception of Earth.

Country of Napoleon

On Earth, thanks to the atmosphere, the higher we are, the colder we are. And when the air rises up, it expands because of the pressure drop – and we get snow. But that’s not the way it works on Pluto. Things are more or less the opposite there. This dwarf planet has a very thin atmosphere consisting of nitrogen, with traces of methane and carbon monoxide. Thanks to the sun’s rays, the higher, the warmer it is around.

So how is it that the mountain peaks of Pluto are covered with snow and ice? It took researchers several years to find the answer to this question. Their work has been published in Nature Communications.

Methane frost

Pluto is classified as a dwarf planet and opened it in 1930 by Clyde William Tombo. The surface temperature of Pluto is nearly 240 degrees below zero. It is about 40 times further from the Sun than the Earth.

To deal with the snowy peaks of Pluto, scientists have resorted to the so-called climate model. Thanks to this model, they were able to conduct various experiments based on what gases are in the atmosphere of the planet. For example, they found that at a certain altitude, the atmosphere of Pluto is very rich in colorless combustible gas methane. The role of this gas on Pluto can be compared to the function of water dust on Earth.

But only at a certain altitude does the air on Pluto contain enough methane to turn it into frost. When the gas becomes more concentrated, it reaches its saturation point and falls like snow.

This is why this “snow,” or methane frost, only falls at the highest peaks.

More surprises

Tangi Bertrand is a Ph.D. and the main author of this study. According to him, the emergence of such similar landscapes as on Earth and Pluto as a result of completely different processes is very rare.

The work of the researchers helped to solve another mystery of Pluto. For a long time, scientists occupied the appearance of glaciers of a dwarf planet. Unlike our wide and flat glaciers on Earth, they have high curved ridges on Pluto. Here, too, methane played a role.

“Because of the severe cold on Pluto, everything is very unusual. Chemical processes have formed high mountains and deep valleys. It is just amazing”, – said the geologist Amundsen.
Scientists working on Pluto continue to work with a lot of photos taken in 2015. It is quite possible to expect that in the future we will reveal other big secrets of this little lump of ice.

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