NASA has released the highest resolution images to date of Pluto's moon Charon. The images were taken by the New Horizons spacecraft during its July 14 flyby of the dwarf planet, and are part of an ongoing data transfer that will see tens of gigabits of data returned over the course of the next 12 months.
Charon and Pluto are an odd couple. For a moon, the rocky body is unusually large when compared to its host, with the satellite boasting a diameter of 754 miles (1,214 km), around half the size of Pluto.
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As was the case with Pluto,
the images of Charon returned by New Horizons display an unexpectedly
diverse and complex array of surface features, including the moon's
distinctively colored north polar region, which appears to mimic the
reddish hue present on the dwarf planet.
Prominently represented in the images is an extensive region of canyons and fractured terrain that scar the surface of Charon for over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) above the equator – roughly four times the length of the Grand Canyon.
"It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open," says John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars."
The images also highlight a region to the south of the equator that appears unusually smooth and unmarked by larger craters, hinting at a violent past of extreme geological instability.
The New Horizons science team is currently working with the theory that at some point in the ancient past, a sub-surface ocean may have have frozen, with the resultant increase in volume forcing the crust of the moon to split open. From these fissures, large quantities of water-based lava could have covered and resurfaced areas of the moon in a process known as cryovolcanism.
According to NASA, the
intrepid spacecraft is currently in good condition roughly 3.1
billion miles (5 billion km) from Earth. As the
downlink from New Horizons continues, we are
sure to receive ever higher-resolution images of the enigmatic moon.
Scroll down for an animated flyby of Charon courtesy of NASA.