Move over Pluto, Charon's time to be the center of attention.
In the new high-resolution images transmitted to Earth from the NASA New Horizons apparatus, the largest satellite of Pluto is visible, and not the well-known dwarf planet, which absorbs all the attention. On a number of striking images, the landscape of the satellite never before appeared to anyone, including the giant valleys that cross Charon’s surface in zigzags, testifying to its complex history.
The diameter of Charon is approximately equal to half the diameter of Pluto, making it the largest satellite in relation to the planet in the solar system. In fact, their orbital dance is so extreme that when Charon rotates in orbit, Pluto swings wildly. As a throwing hammer spinning around one point, the center of gravity of the system is located outside the surface of Pluto, allowing the system of this planet and Charon to be classified as a double planet. This is the largest example of this kind in the Solar System (there are several binary asteroids).
But the planetary classifications are one thing, and the new look at Charon showed a striking world of its own order, full of stunning craters, interesting geological features and an impressive, cracked surface of the satellite's crust, which came as a surprise to the project scientists.
“It’s as if the whole Charon’s crust was split,” said John Spencer, deputy head of GGI at the Southwestern Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “As for their size relative to Charon, it’s more like a huge system of canyons of the Valley of Mariner on Mars.” Before the first meeting of the New Horizons mission with the Pluto system on July 14, the scientists believed that the surface of Charon would be quite homogeneous, the rocky objects would alternate with the craters. And although there are indeed craters here, their variability is simply enormous. Particularly noteworthy is the disproportion between the younger and flat valleys in the south of Charon and the more ancient craters in the north.
At first glance, it could be such processes as cryovolcanism, which renewed the surface, giving the landscape a more youthful appearance. “Our team is discussing the possibility that the internal ocean, consisting of water, froze long ago, and its final volume has changed, which could lead to the formation of cracks on the surface, allowing water lava to reach the surface at the same time,” said Paul Schenk, member New Horizons teams from the Houston Institute of the Moon and Planets.
A high resolution Charon image from the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager mounted on a NASA spacecraft as close as possible to the surface on July 14, 2015 with an enlarged color image from the Ralph / Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) camera.
“We thought the ability to see such interesting features on this satellite at the far end of the solar system was low,” adds Ross Beyer, partner at New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. “but I can’t be more pleased to see this.” Having a surface similar to the surprisingly complex and dynamic surface of Pluto, it seems that even Charon, even though it is smaller, has its own history. It will probably take some time until we fully understand its nature, especially with regard to this amazing fault of a thousand (and maybe more) miles, but one thing is now clearly understood: both Pluto and Charon surpass anyone's expectations. They truly represent a completely different world that has evolved in a far frozen corner of the solar system and the knowledge that New Horizons has sent us will reveal how alien this world really is. The colors are reproduced in order to better distinguish the vibrations of Charon's surface.
A high resolution Charon image taken from the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager mounted on a NASA spacecraft as close as possible to the surface on July 14, 2015 with an enlarged color image from the Ralph / Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) camera.