NASA Reveals Charon’s Violent Past In Amazing New Images

NASA released the first high-resolution, color-enhanced images of Charon, Pluto’s moon, from the New Horizons spacecraft, revealing that life in the outer reaches of the solar system isn’t all that peaceful. The icy rock is covered with mountains and stark ridges, thanks to what NASA is calling a “colorful and violent history.”

NASA’s News Horizons spacecraft first took the pictures on July 14, although the researchers only recently received them on September 21.

Charon's color palette is not as diverse as Pluto's; most striking is the reddish north (top) polar region, informally named Mordor Macula. Charon is 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across; this image resolves details as small as 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers).

According to a statement from NASA, the images of Charon come as a surprise.

“Many New Horizons scientists expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they’re finding a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more. “

Perhaps the most surprising feature for the NASA researchers is the massive gash that stretches across the moon’s surface. The space agency reports the canyon is 1,000 miles long (1,600 km), roughly four times longer than the Grand Canyon and in certain places it is twice as deep.

Considering that Charon’s diameter is only 751 miles, the canyon system most likely formed from an extreme event.

“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” according to New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead John Spencer.

“With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”

NASA Charon Image 2

NASA researchers are also fascinated by what’s not on Charon’s surface, particularly in the smooth region informally known as Vulcan Planum below the canyon. Scientists are still hypothesizing why that area would be free from crater impacts and appears to be younger than other portions of the moon.

One idea is cryovolcanism, a cold kind of volcanic activity.

New Horizons’ team member Paul Schenk said, “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.”

NASA also recently announced they had strong evidence of liquid water on Mars, setting off rampant speculation about future manned Mars missions and life on the surface.

Of course, humans won’t be able to study the supposed Martian water until 2030, at the earliest.

The Mars Curiosity rover is not able to go down the steep cliffs to the canyon bottom where it spotted the water. Even if it could, CNET reports it would be against space law to begin studies.

Liquid water is the essential ingredient of life on Earth, and that means the location of Mars’ water would be the prime location for life to thrive on the red planet. According to the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, any state studying the water will have to take extra precautions to “avoid harmful contamination.”

It would be an embarrassing blunder if the first life discovered on Mars happens to be Earth’s toughest microbes.

In the meantime, there’s the New Horizons mission.

The new Charon photos are impressive, and they’re most likely not the last. The Verge reports that 90 percent of the data from the spacecraft is still waiting to be transmitted.

Mission Project Scientist Hal Weaver said, “I predict Charon’s story will become even more amazing!”

The mission has already turned up its fair share of surprises.

As for the future of the New Horizons spacecraft itself, it’s currently on its way to the Kuiper belt, the outermost region of the solar system.

The spacecraft is currently healthy with all systems operating correctly. It is about 3.1 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) away from Earth.

More information and pictures of Charon and Pluto can be found here on NASA’s New Horizons page, or here.

[Photos by NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI]