NASA’s New Horizons mission to fly by Pluto has been a smashing success by almost any standard. Planetary astronomers are besides themselves with excitement over the new images of the distant, dwarf planet streaming back from the spacecraft since Tuesday. Researchers have already begun rewriting the textbooks on Pluto based on the new data from New Horizons.
But the NASA probe did not only take pictures of Pluto. It also captured images of Pluto’s massive moon Charon, and these pictures have also created a major scientific buzz. One of the most exciting discoveries was that there is a large mountain on Charon, which was a big surprise as mountains are a sign of relatively recent volcanic activity. This is a big deal as researchers did not expect that a “dead moon” would have active geological features.
It took an almost decade-long voyage through interplanetary space, but the New Horizons spacecraft zoomed by Pluto on July 14th for a first ever flyby of the most distant planet in the solar system. The craft was traveling at over 31,000 mph when it passed by, and was actually a mere 7,750 miles above the rocky planet’s surface.
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New Horizons – More on mysterious moon on Charon
NASA published the first close-up images of Charon on Thursday, July 16th, and geologists across the globe are stunned and amazed. One new image shows a large mountain in the middle of a depression in the landscape, and geologists are racing to figure out how this mysterious mountain was formed.
“The most intriguing feature is a large mountain sitting in a moat,” commented Jeff Moore with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, the leader of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team. “This is a feature that has geologists stunned and stumped.”
You can see the location of the “mountain in a moat” in the inset of a global view of Charon above.
New Horizons captures high resolution image
Of interest, this new high resolution image of Charon was taken at around 6:30 a.m. EDT, just 90 minutes ahead of the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14th. The picture was taken from a range of around 49,000 miles (79,000 kilometers).
The image was captured by New Horizons’ high resolution Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. A much clearer and more detailed view will be available in the future, as this initial image is heavily compressed.
“Sharper versions are anticipated when the full-fidelity data from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager are returned to Earth,” NASA officials noted Wednesday.
Of note, it will take more than 16 months to send back all the data collected by New Horizons in its flyby of the Pluto system.
The area in the LORRI image covers around 240 miles (390 kilometers) from top to bottom. Planetary astronomers have pointed out that here are only a few craters “indicating a relatively young surface that has been reshaped by geologic activity.”
Another feature of interest is a “swath of cliffs and troughs stretching about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) suggests widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust, likely the result of internal geological processes”.