NASA releases detailed images of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, as the New Horizons spacecraft completes its first flyby of the dwarf planet. These constitute the highest resolution images of Charon, raising new scientific inquiries about the natural satellite’s geological history.
Scientists are baffled by the discovery of a complex landscape covered in wide-ranging mountains and canyons, as well as a diversity of colors on Charon’s surface. Prior to these observations, scientists assumed that the satellite’s surface was monotonous and covered in craters.
The New Horizons spacecraft also sent back highly detailed images of an enormous canyon, stretching almost across the entire diameter of Pluto’s moon. Scientists determined that this geological feature is four times as long as the Grand Canyon and almost twice as deep in certain areas.
John Spencer, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, argues that it bears a striking resemblance to the vast Valles Marineris canyons on Mars.
“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,”
he further added.
Such features are unusual for a rocky satellite almost half the size of the planet it is orbiting. Researchers are now speculating that at some time during its ancient pass, Charon might have incorporated a sub-surface ocean. The new theory envisions at a time when this ocean started to freeze, resulting in an overall volume increase, thus pushing the crust of the moon to split open.
Images also highlight an unusually smooth region south of the equator, informally referred to as Vulcan Planum, which is unmarked by large craters. This further adds credibility to the theory that, at some point succeeding its geological formation, Charon experienced a violent, tumultuous period.
The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence institute – SETI – also took an interest in the new discoveries. Ross Beyer, a scientific affiliate of the SETI Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California said that
“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.”
However SETI has not commented if this raises the possibility of finding evidence for cellular life which could have occurred sometime during Charon’s ancient geological history. Nonetheless, NASA awaits tens of gigabits of more data from the New Horizons spacecraft, to be received within the next twelve months, which should offer an even more complex insight on the natural satellite’s geological past.
Photo Credits: Wikimedia