High resolution images of Pluto’s moon Charon record a violent history

Images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft of Charon, Pluto’s moon and the largest satellite relative to its planet in the solar system, show a much more complex landscape than expected – one of mountains, canyons, landslides and surface-colour variations. 

“We thought the probability of seeing such interesting features on this satellite of a world at the far edge of our solar system was low,” said Ross Beyer, of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team “but I couldn’t be more delighted with what we see.”

The images tell the story of a violent and colourful past.

“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” said John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”

Charon 2
High-resolution images of Charon were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. Charon’s cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains.

Scientists have also discovered that the plains south of the Charon’s canyon have fewer large craters than the regions to the north, indicating that they are noticeably younger. 

One possibility is that there has been a sort of of cold volcanic activity, called cryovolcanism.

“The team is discussing the possibility that an internal water ocean could have frozen long ago, and the resulting volume change could have led to Charon cracking open, allowing water-based lavas to reach the surface at that time,” said Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.  

Pluto and charon
A composite of enhanced colour images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left) highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The colour and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale.

Even higher-resolution Charon images and composition data are still to come as New Horizons continues to transmit data. You can find more information and images at www.nasa.gov/newhorizons and http://pluto.jhuapl.edu

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