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Rifts on Charon: New Horizons Shows Violent Geology on Pluto's Largest Moon

Jul 13, 2015 03:02 AM EDT
Pluto and Charon
(Photo : NASA/ESA/G. Bacon)

The intrepid spacecraft New Horizons is a mere one-million miles away from Pluto, and as it draws ever closer, it's getting a never-before-seen view of Charon, the dwarf planet's largest moon. Now experts, for the first time, are able to see that the icy world is marred by miles of craters and intriguing trenches, hinting at what my lie below.

"This is the first clear evidence of faulting and surface disruption on Charon," William McKinnon, deputy lead scientist with New Horizon's Geology and Geophysics investigation team, said in a recent statement. "New Horizons has transformed our view of this distant moon from a nearly featureless ball of ice to a world displaying all kinds of geologic activity."

According to the team's initial observations, the most prominent crater on the moon's surface is about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) across. Interestingly, they have determine that this crater is relatively young - a detail betrayed by rays of blasted material still visible around the impact point. The cause, McKinnon and his team suggest, was a small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) slamming into Charon within the last billion years. (Scroll to read on...)


The darkness of the crater's floor is especially intriguing, the scientist added, as it suggests there is a thick and icy material different than the reflective sheets of ice found on the moon's surface. Another possibility is that the impact simply altered the ice, melting and then refreezing it into larger 'grains' that reflect less sunlight.

Most notably, the team noticed a mysterious dark region near Charon's north pole that stretches for more than 200 miles. More detailed images that New Horizons will take around the time of closest approach to the moon on July 14 may provide hints about the dark region's origin., but some have already speculated that it might be a rift or chasm, hidden in its own shadow.

And that could help support existing theories regarding Charon, namely that the moon could be hiding an underground ocean - something that would only be betrayed by large 'wobble' cracks in the moon's surface.

New Horizons is approaching Pluto after a more than nine-year, three-billion mile journey. At 7:49 AM EDT on Tuesday, July 14 the unmanned spacecraft will zip past Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour (49,600 kilometers per hour), with a suite of seven science instruments busily gathering data. The mission will complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system with the first-ever look at the icy dwarf planet.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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