spaceSpace and Physics

Pluto’s "Snakeskin" Surface Could Provide Hints Of Solar System's Formation


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockMar 16 2016, 23:08 UTC
439 Pluto’s "Snakeskin" Surface Could Provide Hints Of Solar System's Formation
Rounded and bizarrely-textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up here. NASA

Pluto has been a goldmine of new science, with every image unlocking some new secret and creating more questions about what’s happening in this faraway world.

And in a NASA blog, mathematical physicist Orkan Umurhan argues that areas of Pluto could have kept a record of the condition from the protosolar nebula, the remnants of which spawned the formation of our Solar System.


The region is informally known as Tartarus Dorsa, located in the rough highlands on the eastern side of Tombaugh Regio (AKA "The Heart"). Tartarus Dorsa has a snakeskin-like appearance, and the blades that form it are some of the steepest structures on Pluto at 0.5 kilometers (0.3 miles) high and 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles) apart.

“It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,” said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead, in a statement. “It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.”

According to New Horizons’ instruments, the region is dominated by methane ice with a little bit of water. It is not clear, though, if methane ice is sturdy enough for these structures to form. Another possibility is that the snakeskin is made of methane clathrate, a solid similar to ice in that methane is trapped inside a crystal of water molecules.


While clathrates on Earth are unstable, they could be stable enough on Pluto. The dwarf planet has an average temperature of -229 °C (-380 °F) and an atmospheric pressure 100,000 times smaller than Earth's, conditions which could allow for large methane clathrate structures.

Methane clathrate in the outer region of the Solar System is believed to have formed in the cloud of gas and dust that would eventually become planets, moons, and comets. According to recent studies, most of the methane on Titan is of interstellar origin and Kuiper Belt objects like Pluto might have formed from the piling up of these molecules over time.

We are yet to find conclusive evidence, but having a deposit of primordial material could help us understand where the Solar System came from.  

spaceSpace and Physics
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