Latest New Horizons images show Charon’s ‘complex, violent history’

2 Oct 2015

New high-resolution images released by NASA show Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in the greatest definition yet, and hint at a turbulent past for the planetary satellite.

The images, taken during New Horizon’s Pluto flyby in July, initially surprised NASA scientists, who – according to a press release from the space agency – expected Charon to be a “monotonous, crater-battered world”.

Instead, they show a landscape with incredible variation – mountains, canyons, landslides and surface colour variations point towards massive surface shifts in Charon’s history.

In addition to these features, the new images show that the southern plains are noticeably smoother than the areas to the north, indicating that they are significantly younger, and suggesting wide-scale resurfacing.

Charon close-up in enhanced colour

Charon in enhanced colour. This image was taken just before closest approach in July. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, said that one possible cause is cold volcanic activity, or cryovolcanism.

“The team is discussing the possibility that an internal water ocean could have frozen long ago and the resulting volume change could have led to Charon cracking open, allowing water-based lavas to reach the surface at that time,” says Schenk.

A NASA video highlights some of the remarkable surface features discovered through New Horizon‘s images.

The revelations from New Horizons are far from over, as more images of Charon and Pluto – of even higher resolutions – are expected to materialise as the spacecraft continues to transmit data over the coming year.

Pluto and Charon

This composite of Pluto and Charon in enhanced colour was taken during the flyby. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

New Horizons is currently 5bn kilometres from Earth, and travelling further away. All systems are healthy and operating normally.

Main image via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic