New Horizons Shocker — Mountain On Pluto Moon Charon

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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.

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”.

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9 Comments on "New Horizons Shocker — Mountain On Pluto Moon Charon"

  1. Your Pedantic Father | Jul 17, 2015, 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |

    Basic orbital science and calculus. Pluto has orbital dynamics that are well understood, so we know where it was, how fast it is going, and where it will be, and can easily calculate any position relative to time. Isaac Newton led the charge on basic orbital sciences back in the 1700’s, and everything from launch dynamics to orbital insertion to gravity assists are well understood at this time. Combine some basic computing power to quickly perform these calculations, and it equals a successful mission.

    Don’t get me wrong — this is a massive achievement and I’m not trivializing it. But with modern computing and control systems available to the team, the math was the relatively easy part. The difficult part was actually getting the craft from its launch platform to a specific point three billion miles away without experiencing any catastrophic failures of equipment, computers, or collisions.

  2. When will they show the alien bases ????

  3. When will we see some NEW PICTURES ???????????????????

  4. Looking at Charon here above, I see more craters than on the pic of Pluto’s surface.
    That means Charon has less activity inside, which is interesting

  5. Could the “mountain in a moat” be a low speed impact with an errant “rock” out of Kuiper Belt? Low gravity + low speed

  6. José Antonio Serrano-García | Jul 17, 2015, 10:44 am at 10:44 am |

    Picture this: Pluto has never completed an orbit around the sun since its discovery! Which means that the only way of them knowing were Pluto was going to be was a good guess. They had to recalculate the position and fix New Horizons trajectory along the way, but no way of getting the exact position. Without it they could have collided with Pluto, Charon, or missed it.

  7. There have been several minor course corrections, but yes it is amazing.

  8. ok Pluto is amazing…but what freaks me out is how they can aim a satellite from Earth to directly hit the orbit of Pluto ? That guy needs a Nobel Peace of somesort. How is that even possible ?

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