Methane ice has been detected on Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft, which will make its flyby of the dwarf planet in less than two weeks.
The team behind the spacecraft reason that the methane must be particularly potent, given that its infrared spectrometer, known as Ralph, picked up the ‘scent’ from such a long way away.
Methane, which is an odourless and colourless gas, can be found underneath Earth’s surface and in our planet’s atmosphere. It’s thought that Pluto’s methane is primordial, inherited from the solar nebula that formed our Solar System 4.5 billion years ago.
“Soon we will know if there are differences in the presence of methane ice from one part of Pluto to another,” Will Grundy, the composition team leader for New Horizons, states.
While the finding of a methane frosting on the former planet is not surprising, given that it was first uncovered in 1976 by ground-based observations, the detection signals just how close we are to discovering brand new information about a previously unknown world.
After New Horizons makes its closest pass of Pluto, it will have enough time to observe sunlight streaming through the atmosphere, which will provide us with a better idea of the dwarf planet’s characteristics. “It will be as if Pluto were illuminated from behind by a trillion-watt light bulb,” says Randy Gladstone, one of the spacecraft’s scientists from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.
New Horizons will reach Pluto and its five moons on 14 July at around 11:49 GMT, where the probe will be around 12,500 kilometres (7,767 miles) above the dwarf planet’s surface.
Check out our sister magazine How It Works‘ video to find out more about the New Horizon mission.