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Flying Over Charon: A Battered but Beautiful Moon [VIDEO]

Oct 05, 2015 03:46 AM EDT

Thanks to the New Horizon spacecraft, humanity has been granted a close-and-personal peek at the rugged surface of Charon, Pluto's largest moon, for the first time in history. However, when getting to know an alien world, pictures aren't enough, right? Now NASA has upped the experience, providing an opportunity for the public to fly over the surface of the mysterious moon.

No, NASA won't be actually flying people in to the furthest corners of our solar system any time soon. However, using computer graphics and the same breathtaking imagery that New Horizons snapped during its historic Pluto fly-by last July, a NASA team has created a way for us to experience the next best thing.

The 'flight' begins overlooking the darkest region of Charon's north pole -- a spot playfully named after Mordor, the fictional lands of evil described in JRR Tolken's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. However, like any wise adventurer, you won't tarry there long. The video sweeps its vision south, showing a vast chasm highlighted as the Planet-Wide Canyon. Swooping into this canyon from 1,100 miles (1,800 km) above the surface to a mere 40 (60 km), you'll travel for a short time before turning south. There, one can spot Charon's mysterious plains and "moat mountain," a prominent peak informally named Kubrick Mons. (Scroll to read on...)


[Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Stuart Robbins ]

That, unfortunately, is where the short trip ends, but not necessarily where your understanding of this alien world should halt. NASA has also released new high-resolution images of Charon's impressive rifts - which are visible even 1 million miles away from the rugged moon. According to early measurements, the rifts are up to twice as deep as Earth's famous Grand Canyon, and four times as long.

"It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open," John Spencer, deputy lead for the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team, said in a statement. "With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars."

The rifts, as far as experts know, stretch across Charon's entire face, and may even continue onto its dark side. What's more, the smooth plains seen in the fly-by video likely formed around the same time as the canyons thanks to unusually cold volcanic activity, called 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," explained Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. (Scroll to read on...)

This great cracking, he said, would have allowed "water-based lavas to reach the surface at that time," leaving the relatively young and smooth surface that New Horizons glimpsed.

"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," added Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the GGI. "I couldn't be more delighted with what we see."

Unfortunately, that fly-by will be the only view of Charon's surface that experts will get for a long time. Still, even while scientists struggle to make sense of Pluto's own mysterious surface, the moon will no doubt remain a favorite pet-project worth keeping abreast on. After all, you got to 'visit' Charon yourself! You may as well endeavor to understand what it is your saw.

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