New Horizons captures Pluto's moon Charon in best images yet
Giant canyons and faults carving up the lunar surface evince a violent past
The latest views of Pluto's biggest moon, Charon, transmitted by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft show what many scientists never expected: mountains, canyons, faults and geologic upheaval, in higher resolution than ever.
"It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open," John Spencer, a New Horizons scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement accompanying the release of the new images Thursday.
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NASA scientist Ross Beyer added: "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."
Charon is one of five known moons of Pluto and is about half its size — proportionally huge for a moon. NASA said many researchers expected Charon's surface to be bland and crater-pocked, but were surprised at the images New Horizons captured in its flyby in mid-July.
The first newly released picture, above, was taken July 14, just before New Horizons made its closest approach to Charon. It shows a lunar surface with far less colour variation compared with Pluto. The main area of contrast is a reddish-brown splotch in the northern polar area, dubbed Mordor Macula, according to NASA.
To the upper left in the image lies a series of uplands dotted by craters, underlined by a deep diagonal system of faults and canyons running from mid-upper-right to mid-lower-left. NASA said the canyons run for more than 1,600 kilometres — almost four times the length of the Grand Canyon, and in some places twice as deep.
"These faults and canyons indicate a titanic geological upheaval in Charon's past," the space agency said.
The second image, below, is a composite showing the much more colourful and radiant Pluto in front and Charon behind. Pluto, too, has a red region — near its equator.
NASA said still higher resolution pictures of Charon are on their way over the next year as New Horizons transmits the contents of its data banks — a slow, painstaking process because of its distance, weak radio signal and the limited number of satellite dishes on Earth that can receive its faint transmissions.
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