California – The latest photos from New Horizons’ spacecraft when it passed Pluto’s system showed astonishing images of the planet’s largest moon, Charon.
Charon is the largest of Pluto’s five moons, but that still means it’s quite small being about half as wide as Pluto itself and at about 1,200 kilometers across. So it’s even less likely than Pluto to have retained enough heat to be geologically active. The latest images show Pluto’s largest moon Charon is more lumpy and uneven than expected.
New Horizons’ flyby revealed Charon to be a surprisingly complex and varied world, complete with canyons, mountains, landslides and many other surface features like craters and a giant 1000 mile-long canyon stretching across the middle. New Horizons was just doing a flyby of Pluto’s system, so it didn’t get a look at the other side of the moon. NASA researchers have entertained the possibility that the network of canyons stretches all the way around the planet.
“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, but I couldn’t be more delighted with what we see,” Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the GGI team from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, said in the same statement according to Space.com.
The south and the north canyons show considerable differences on smoothness, leading scientists to believe that significant resurfacing of Charon has occurred in the not-too-distant past. So Charon, same as Pluto, might be more geologically active than we thought as the possibility of seeing so much geological activity on a small moon at the edge of the solar system was seen as very unlikely.
The reason for this radical remodeling of the surface could be due to volcanic activity, but NASA seems more interested in the possibility of cryovolcanism, from an internal water ocean frozen in the past. The cracking in the surface and the mountainous features may have resulted from changes in the volume and distribution.
Higher resolution images of Charon, along with data on its composition, are still sitting onboard New Horizons. So a clearer picture of the body will quite literally emerge later this year or early next.