Charon might have harbored a subsurface ocean according to NASA. The latest image released by the U.S. space agency and received from New Horizons shows a system of tectonic faults which would have caused the surface of Pluto’s moon to stretch and fracture in the process.
The subsurface ocean on Charon may have helped the moon’s surface to fracture as it froze. Water ice pushed outward and caused the tectonic faults to move, leading to the massive scale surface fracture.
NASA’s New Horizons captured this image during the historic Pluto flyby last year. The image suggests the system of tectonic faults is expressed in the scarps, valleys and ridges present on Charon. Some of the valleys on Pluto’s moon are as deep as 4 miles. These are clear indications that at some point in the past of the large moon’s surface fractured during the stretching process.
Charon’s outer layer is currently ridden with water ice. When Pluto’s moon was young, the water was kept in liquid state due to internal formation heat and heat resulted from radioactive elements decaying. NASA believes that the heat thus provided would have been sufficient to keep the water warm and forming a subsurface ocean.
In time, Charon cooled. With heat no longer present, Charon’s subsurface ocean froze and expanded. In the process, the outer layers of Pluto’s moon lifted and stretched, leaving room for the massive chasms visible in the New Horizons image. As such, Charon might have harbored a subsurface ocean.
The New Horizons image portrays Serenity Chasma. The feature, visible on the top part of the NASA image is part of Charon’s equatorial chasms belt. The belt, complete with fractures and tectonic faults is estimated at 1,100 miles in length. Some chasms in the equatorial chasms belt are 4.5 miles deep.
If you look to the lower part of the New Horizons image, you’ll notice Serenity Chasma in color-coded topography. The color-coded topography is key to understanding whether the outer water ice layer was liquid at any point in Pluto’s moon evolution.
The clues suggesting that Charon might have harbored a subsurface ocean were captured by New Horizons in one image taken with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). The resolution of the New Horizons image is approximately 1,290 feet per pixel. Overall, the image is 240 miles in length and 110 miles in width.
This portion of Pluto’s moon Charon was captured from a distance of 48,900 miles from the large moon. At the time, NASA’s New Horizons was one hour and 40 minutes away from the historic Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015.
Photo Credits: NASA