Pluto's moon Charon captured in stunning detail
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 anodd couple. For a moon, the rocky body is unusually large whencompared to its host, with the satellite boasting a diameter of 754 miles (1,214 km), around half the size of Pluto.
As was the case with Pluto,the images of Charon returned by New Horizons display an unexpectedlydiverse and complex array of surface features, including the moon'sdistinctively colored north polar region, which appears to mimic thereddish hue present on the dwarf planet.
Prominently representedin the images is an extensive region of canyons and fractured terrainthat scar the surface of Charon for over 1,000 miles (1,600 km)above the equator – roughly four times the length of the GrandCanyon.
"It looks like theentire 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, thisfeature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system onMars."
The images alsohighlight a region to the south of the equator that appears unusuallysmooth and unmarked by larger craters, hinting at a violent past of extreme geological instability.
The New Horizonsscience team is currently working with the theory that at some pointin the ancient past, a sub-surface ocean may have have frozen, withthe resultant increase in volume forcing the crust of the moon tosplit open. From these fissures, large quantities of water-based lavacould have covered and resurfaced areas of the moon in a processknown as cryovolcanism.
According to NASA, theintrepid spacecraft is currently in good condition roughly 3.1billion miles (5 billion km) from Earth. As thedownlink from New Horizons continues, we aresure to receive ever higher-resolution images of the enigmatic moon.
Scroll down for ananimated flyby of Charon courtesy of NASA.