The history of the modern exploration of the solar system has been a catalog of surprises. No matter what astronomers and planetary scientists expected to find, the moons and planets have managed to say “Gotcha!” more than once. From the discovery that Mercury does not keep one side always facing the sun and that the sky of Mars is salmon-pink instead of ultramarine blue to volcanoes on Io and asteroids with rings and moons, the solar system has been pretty consistently imaginative, making hard and fast predictions about what might show up on a previously unexplored world iffy at best.

That being said, I’ve consulted with Dr. Alan Stern, the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission, to see what sorts of landscapes Pluto and Charon might have in store for us. Needless to say, if any of these prove to be right, the credit goes to Dr. Stern...but I’m willing to take the blame if Pluto turns out to look nothing like I’ve depicted.

Pluto may have lakes of liquid neon. This is an idea proposed by research scientist Jeff Kargel.


Pluto may have an equatorial mountain range similar to the one on Iapetus, created during the formation of Charon. Charon was probably formed by two large bodies impacting—in much the same way our own moon was formed. This would have created a temporary ring of debris around Pluto, much of which may have fallen to the surface.

Pluto may have ice rilles similar to those on Jupiter’s wrinkly moon, Ganymede.


Or maybe giant fractures like those found on Europa.

Pluto may have a ring. Two of the planet’s tiny moons, Nix and Hydra are only a few miles wide, so they have very little gravity. Any micrometeoroid impacts on these moons would launch dust and other material into orbit around Pluto.


Pluto may have thermal features, such as oxygen springs and cryogeysers.