SCIENCE

Stunning New Charon Photos Reveal Pluto Moon's Violent Past

Craters, sure, but Charon's surface also features mountains, landslides, and a gigantic canyon.

NASA has released striking new images of Pluto's largest moon, Charon, and the world they show is very different from what the space agency's scientists had expected.

Many of the scientists had expected Charon to have a monotonous surface covered with craters, the agency said. Instead, the photos--taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14--reveal a landscape dotted with mountains, canyons, and landslides.

The high-resolution photos also show stark variations in Charon's surface color.

“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,” Dr. Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, said in a written statement.

(Story continues below images.)
This image of Charon was captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. The colors have been processed to highl
This image of Charon was captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. The colors have been processed to highlight Charon's varied surfaces. Charon is 754 miles across. This image resolves details as small as 1.8 miles.
This composite of enhanced-color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left) was taken by NASA's New Horizons space
This composite of enhanced-color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left) was taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. The image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their separation is not to scale.
High-resolution images of Charon were taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced co
High-resolution images of Charon were taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced color. Charon's cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum. The scene covers Charon's width of 754 miles and resolves details as small as 0.5 mile.

Perhaps the most dramatic feature is a vast system of canyons that stretches more than 1,000 miles across Charon's face and likely onto the moon's far side. (The video above lets you fly through it.)

In case you're wondering, NASA says that's four times longer than the Grand Canyon and in some places twice as deep. As Dr. John Spencer, a New Horizons scientist affiliated with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in the statement, "It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open.”   

The New Horizons spacecraft, now 3.1 billion miles from Earth, is still sending data about Pluto and its moons back to Earth. So, impressive as the new photos are, NASA says even better images are yet to come.
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