Over the last few months, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been beaming information back to Earth from the historic Pluto fly-by on July 14th, where the spacecraft snapped pictures of Pluto and its surrounding bodies while it had every opportunity to get up close. This was the first time that we’ve ever gotten anything this close to Pluto before.
As the spacecraft continues outbound, information is slow to get back to Earth. We've already received many of them (1), (2), but there are more to come. Being 3.1 billion miles away from the planet means that it takes a long time for the radio waves to travel back to Earth. Nonetheless, NASA is all ears right now.
More stunning photographs have made it back to Earth, this time with Pluto and its largest moon Charon being in the frame. Charon is said to be about half of the size of the diameter of Pluto, and as NASA notes, it is the largest satellite relative to its own planet (or dwarf planet in this case) in our solar system.
Charon has some very interesting formations on its surface that look a lot like the Grand Canyon, but are a lot longer and a lot deeper. NASA says that the canyons on Charon are up to twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in some locations, and that it’s 1,000 miles long, which is about four times the length of the Grand Canyon.
“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” said John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”
These formations split the crust of the planet into two main sections – one North and one South. Scientists say that the South side has smaller craters than the North side, which is a result of younger age. There are also smooth locations on Charon that scientists believe may be the result of volcanic activity or underlying frozen oceans.
“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, allowing water-based lavas to reach the surface at that time,” said Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.
With New Horizons already having pushed past Pluto, NASA now wants to try and fly past a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 to learn more about its existence way past the target Pluto. It’s an icy body that floats along asteroids about a billion miles away from Pluto. Just like Pluto, NASA wants to grab pictures and information and then receive it here on Earth for observation.
Before then, however, there are still plenty more photographs to get back from the spacecraft after its latest mission.
In the mean time, sit back, relax, and watch this awesome video render of the surface of Charon that NASA created with images taken by New Horizons: