The latest pictures from NASA’s New Horizons probe offer a fresh perspective on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, a satellite named after the Greek ferryman of the dead. However, as readers can see, this version of Charon looks anything but lifeless.
The images clearly show the existence of a chain of cracks and canyons in the northern hemisphere of the moon, near to its equator. The canyon range extends over a thousand miles and as such, it is twice the size of the Grand Canyon. NASA claims that this demonstrates that Charon has been through a period of severe geographical upheaval.
To the south of the canyon range, in an area known as “the Plains of Vulcan”, the landscape is much smoother, which indicates what the agency labelled “wide-scale resurfacing”. How this occurred is uncertain, but Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, offered this theory: “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.”
Another distinct feature is a rust-coloured patch near the moon’s northern pole, which has been dubbed Mordor Macula (all sites on the moon have unofficial names for the moment and yes, that is a Lord of the Rings reference). It has been speculated that this could be the result of frozen gases being ejected from Pluto’s atmosphere, which then impacted on Charon. The brightness of the colouring is believed to be evidence that the reddish layer is a thin veil for some other feature, with ice the most likely candidate.
As stunning as the images are on a visual level, it is their scientific value that has NASA excited. “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!”, said Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Centre in Mountain View, California.
Most exciting for stargazers is that even more detailed images are expected to arrive in the near future. As long as New Horizons continues onward, the final frontier keeps getting farther away.