New NASA images show violent, perhaps watery past on Pluto’s moon

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Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, has had “a surprisingly complex and violent history” according to new high-resolution color images sent back by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

A rusty-colored spot dots one of Charon’s poles, and mountains, canyons, craters, and landslides cover the moon.

Charon in Enhanced Color

NASA’s New Horizons captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Charon just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. Charon’s color palette is not as diverse as Pluto’s; most striking is the reddish north (top) polar region, informally named Mordor Macula.

“I couldn’t be more delighted with what we see,” said Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center.

“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.”

Flying over Pluto\'s moon, Charon

Video by NASA and JHAPL

Be sure to watch this video full-screen.

A canyon four times longer and in places twice as deep as the Grand Canyon belts the Pluto-facing side of Charon, and scientists expect it likely wraps around to the far side of the moon.

“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. These features, NASA said, show that Charon experienced a massive geological upheaval.

Pluto and Charon

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color 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. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

That crack may have come from an ancient, frozen ocean.

“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.

New Horizons took the photos of Pluto’s moon in July and they made it back to Earth in late September. More images are expected to be transmitted from the NASA craft.

“I predict Charon’s story will become even more amazing!” said mission Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, on the impact new images could have.

Hi res of Charon

High-resolution images of Charon were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shortly before closest approach on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced color from the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Charon’s cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum. The scene covers Charon’s width of 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) and resolves details as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers).