Pluto’s Methane Snowcaps on the Edge of Darkness


The area shown above is south of Pluto’s dark equatorial band informally named Cthulhu Regio, and southwest of the vast nitrogen ice plains informally named Sputnik Planum or Sputnik Planitia, as the mission team recently redesignated the area to more accurately reflect the low elevation of the plains. North is at the top; in the western portion of the image, a chain of bright mountains extends north into Cthulhu Regio. The mountains reveal themselves as snowcapped—something hauntingly familiar from our Earthbased experience. But New Horizons compositional data indicate the bright snowcap material covering these mountains isn’t water, but atmospheric methane that has condensed as frost onto these surfaces at high elevation. Between some mountains are sharply cut valleys – indicated by the white arrows below. These valleys are each a few miles across and tens of miles long.