NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has returned the best colour and the highest resolution images yet of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon – and these pictures show a surprisingly complex and violent history.
At half the diameter of Pluto, Charon is the largest satellite relative to its planet in the Solar System. Many New Horizons scientists expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world – instead, they’re finding a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-colour variations and more.
“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,” says Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, “but I couldn’t be more delighted with what we see!”
High-resolution images of the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon, taken by New Horizons as the spacecraft sped through the Pluto system on 14 July, and transmitted to Earth on 21 September, reveal details of a belt of fractures and canyons just north of the moon’s equator. This great canyon system stretches across the entire face of Charon, more than a thousand miles, and probably around onto Charon’s far side. Four times as long as the Grand Canyon, and twice as deep in places, these faults and canyons indicate a titanic geological upheaval in Charon’s past.
“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” says John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “In respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”
The team has also discovered that the plains south of the canyon, informally referred to as Vulcan Planum, have fewer large craters than the regions to the north, indicating that they are noticeably younger. The smoothness of the plains, as well as their grooves and faint ridges, are clear signs of wide-scale resurfacing.
One possibility for the smooth surface is a kind 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,” says Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.
Even higher-resolution Charon images and composition data are still to come as New Horizons transmits data, stored on its digital recorders, over the next year – and as that happens, “I predict Charon’s story will become even more amazing!” says mission Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
The New Horizons spacecraft is currently 5 billion kilometres (3.1 billion miles) from Earth, with all systems healthy and operating normally.