The photographs we are receiving back from New Horizons after they passed Pluto more than eight months ago continue to teach us new things, like last week when NASA published a picture of a methane ice-covered mountain range on Pluto.
The Cthulhu Regio, a dark red region, is depicted in the photograph along with the dazzling peaks of a 400 km mountain range. And although these peaks could appear to be covered in new, fluffy snow, we can detect that they are made of methane due to how they absorb infrared light.
Methane on Pluto condenses and freezes at high altitudes to form methane ice, similar to how water does on Earth. And we have been discovering materials all across Pluto.
Methane ice caps some of Pluto’s mountains©NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI.
Check out this image of the Tartarus Dorsa region, for instance. Pluto’s surface appears steep and scaly, with cliffs hundreds of meters deep and cracks, and those bumps are primarily formed of methane with a small amount of water, which is peculiar.
Rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa©NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI.
Methane shouldn’t be able to form such abrupt cliffs, given what we know about it. These formations should be flattened in a few decades by Pluto’s gravity.
Thus, it’s possible that this isn’t just methane as we know it. Alternatively, the methane and water may mix to form a substance known as a clathrate. Astronomers believe that water may encircle the methane in this clathrate, which is like a cage where one molecule surrounds another.
Although we have not directly witnessed clathrates on Pluto, we know they would be powerful and solid enough to generate Pluto’s sheer cliffs. When the solar system was still a disc of gas and dust that had barely begun to cool, the clathrates would have formed extremely early.
The solar system is thought to be filled with methane clathrates, which may have served as some of the primary building blocks for comets and other frozen worlds. We may therefore be able to understand more about Pluto’s environment and the solar system’s origin by investigating these molecular cages.
It should be noted that the improved color image has a resolution of around 680 m/pixel. The picture is around 450 kilometers long and 225 km broad. On July 14, 2015, about 45 minutes before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto, New Horizons took the photo at around 33,900 km from Pluto, according to a NASA study.
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