Is It Snowing on Pluto?

Plutophiles are abuzz over the New Horizons spacecraft’s observations of the object formerly known as the ninth planet. As the ship approached Pluto on July 13, it snapped the best shot of the dwarf planet yet, revealing previously unseen surface features that, according to NASA scientists, suggest Pluto is home to a rare weather phenomenon: snow.
Image of Pluto taken by New Horizons on July 13.

Because Pluto is a frigid body with an icy surface, one might expect Pluto to host the occasional snowstorm. But cold temperatures and frozen materials do not a snowy planet make. In order to have frozen material fall from the sky, a planet needs either an atmosphere that can host snow clouds or volcanic eruptions that can launch freezable material high enough. It also needs a solid surface for that snow to land on, explains planetary scientist Bruce Betts of the Planetary Society. Few objects in the outer solar system meet these requirements. But Pluto, which has a thin nitrogen atmosphere with the potential for producing snow, might just be one of them.

When asked during a press conference if the new image confirms that it’s snowing on Pluto, Alan Stern, NASA’s principal investigator on the New Horizons mission, simply replied, “It sure looks that way.” A somewhat awkward silence ensued, during which the audience clearly thought he would elaborate. He didn’t, but New Horizons should confirm suspicions of snow soon enough. During New Horizons’ closest encounter with Pluto on July 14, the spacecraft was temporarily out of touch with Earth so that it could fous all its attention on collecting data, but over the next several months that data will start flooding back to NASA scientists. If it is snowing on Pluto, the dwarf planet joins a very exclusive club: snow of various weird kinds falls on only a handful of planets and moons across the solar system.

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