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Scientists Discover Landslides on Pluto’s Moon Charon

Oct 21, 2016 06:12 AM EDT

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has discovered evidence of landslides on Pluto's moon Charon.

The landslides were spotted during the probe's close flyby of Pluto in July 2015. According to New Horizons scientists, this is the first time landslides were discovered in the Kuiper Belt, which is a region of icy and rocky bodies lying beyond Neptune's orbit where the Pluto system lies.

"We've seen similar landslides on other rocky and icy planets, such as Mars and Saturn's moon Iapetus, but these are the first landslides we've seen this far from the sun, in the Kuiper Belt," Ross Beyer, a science team researcher from Sagan Center at the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in California, said in a report by Universe Today. The findings were discussed during a news conference at the American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Sciences 2016 meeting in Pasadena. "The big question is will they be detected elsewhere in the Kuiper Belt?" Beyer added.

Scientists are uncertain about what caused the landslides. Possibilities include tectonic activity below the surface and meteorite impacts, the scientists said. A total of four landslides were spotted on Charon's Serenity Chasma region. The 200-meter thick material was spotted vertically down the cliffs and horizontally into the canyon.

The images of the landslide were taken using New Horizon's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 48,912 miles (78,717 kilometers).

"One of the requirements for a landslide is, you have a steepened slope that can then fail," Beyer said in a statement. "On Charon, we think that [the material] is a strong, cold water ice that makes up all of the surface that we primarily see there."

According to the scientists, the images of Charon are not high enough to provide a clearer picture of what the material in these landslides looks like. Landslides have been spotted on other icy bodies in the solar system, but Beyer said that this is the first time landslides were spotted in an icy body in the Kuiper Belt.

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