Bundle up, travelers. It's snowing methane on Pluto

NASA reports on a chain of "exotic snowcapped mountains" on Pluto, but it's not a place you'd want to go skiing.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

You might want to rethink your future vacation plans for Pluto. If you absolutely insist on going, you'll want to pack a warm jacket and perhaps some snowshoes. NASA scientists revealed a new tidbit on Thursday about the weather on the dwarf planet: it seems to have methane snow.

Pluto has a large dark area known as "Cthulhu." H.P. Lovecraft aficionados will recognize that as the name of one of the author's most famous fictional deities, a tentacle-faced monstrous creature that signals the doom of humanity. Pluto's Cthulhu covers an area about the size of US state Alaska and it features some intriguing mountainous areas topped with snow made from methane.

NASA's New Horizons mission conducted a close flyby of Pluto in July 2015 and is still in the process of sending back images and data.

Pluto's methane snow
Enlarge Image
Pluto's methane snow

These enhanced and false-color images show the presence of methane snow on Pluto.


The mountain range scientists are focusing on is 260 miles (420 kilometers) long and is located in Cthulhu's southeastern reaches. A NASA image released Thursday shows the mountain range as whitish raised spots against the reddish plains below. The false-color image on the far right highlights methane ice in purple. The ice coincides with the location of the mountain slopes.

We're all familiar with methane as a greenhouse-gas byproduct of cattle windiness here on Earth. NASA researchers believe it may behave on Pluto a lot like water does here. "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," John Stansberry, a New Horizons science team member, said in a statement.

New Horizons' data dump back to Earth will continue, but the spacecraft could get a mission extension that will take it deeper into the Kuiper Belt, a region of the solar system that extends beyond Neptune's orbit and is filled with all sorts of interesting icy objects.

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