Charon’s Chasms and Craters Come into Focus

Chasms, craters, and a dark north polar region are revealed in this image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on July 11, 2015. (Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI)
Chasms, craters, and a dark north polar region are revealed in this image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on July 11, 2015. (Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI)

LAUREL, Md. (NASA PR) — New Horizons’ newest images reveal Pluto’s largest moon Charon to be a world of chasms and craters. The most pronounced chasm, which lies in the southern hemisphere, is longer and miles deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon, according to William McKinnon, deputy lead scientist with New Horizon’s Geology and Geophysics investigation team.

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Meet Pluto & its Moons: Key Facts About These Distant Worlds

New Horizons' last look at Pluto's Charon-facing hemisphere reveals intriguing geologic details that are of keen interest to mission scientists. This image, taken early the morning of July 11, 2015, shows newly-resolved linear features above the equatorial region that intersect, suggestive of polygonal shapes. This image was captured when the spacecraft was 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI)
New Horizons’ last look at Pluto’s Charon-facing hemisphere reveals intriguing geologic details that are of keen interest to mission scientists. This image, taken early the morning of July 11, 2015, shows newly-resolved linear features above the equatorial region that intersect, suggestive of polygonal shapes. This image was captured when the spacecraft was 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI)

MEET PLUTO
New Horizons Pluto Flyby Press Kit

General

  • First dwarf planet discovered by an American, Lowell Observatory astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.
  • It is the final classical planet in the solar system to be visited by a spacecraft.
  • Pluto has five known moons — Charon, discovered in 1978; Nix and Hydra, discovered in 2005; Styx, discovered in 2011; and Kerberos, discovered in 2012.
  • Charon is so large (half of Pluto’s size, same diameter as Texas) that the Pluto-Charon system makes up a “double planet,” the only one in our solar system. Together Pluto and Charon orbit around their common center of gravity in the space between them.
  • Pluto is unusually difficult to study from Earth because it is so small and far away. It is 50,000 times fainter than Mars, with less than 1% of the red planet’s apparent diameter when viewed from Earth.
  • Pluto is the largest and brightest known member of the Kuiper Belt — the solar system’s third zone — the vast region of ancient, icy, rocky bodies stretching almost 2 billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.
  • The International Astronomical Union controversially opted in 2006 to classify Pluto and recently discovered large Kuiper Belt Objects as dwarf planets; debate continues on Pluto’s planetary classification.

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Everything You Need to Know About New Horizons

New Horizons spacecraft (Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI)
New Horizons spacecraft (Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI)

QUICK FACTS
New Horizons Pluto Flyby Press Kit

MISSION

Launch: January 19, 2006, from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Launch vehicle: Lockheed Martin Atlas V-551 (core Atlas booster [with five solid rocket boosters attached] with a Centaur upper stage); and a Boeing STAR-48B solid-propellant rocket third stage.

Launch vehicle height (with payload): 59.7 meters (196 feet). (more…)

Pluto & Charon: What a Crazy Pair

New Horizons was about 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) from Pluto and Charon when it snapped this portrait late on July 8, 2015. Most of the bright features around Pluto’s edge are a result of image processing, but the bright sliver below the dark “whale,” which is also visible in unprocessed images, is real. (Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)
New Horizons was about 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) from Pluto and Charon when it snapped this portrait late on July 8, 2015. Most of the bright features around Pluto’s edge are a result of image processing, but the bright sliver below the dark “whale,” which is also visible in unprocessed images, is real. (Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)
This is the same image of Pluto and Charon from July 8, 2015; color information obtained earlier in the mission from the Ralph instrument has been added. (Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)
This is the same image of Pluto and Charon from July 8, 2015; color information obtained earlier in the mission from the Ralph instrument has been added. (Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)

LAUREL, Md. (NASA PR) — They’re a fascinating pair: Two icy worlds, spinning around their common center of gravity like a pair of figure skaters clasping hands. Scientists believe they were shaped by a cosmic collision billions of years ago, and yet, in many ways, they seem more like strangers than siblings.

A high-contrast array of bright and dark features covers Pluto’s surface, while on Charon, only a dark polar region interrupts a generally more uniform light gray terrain. The reddish materials that color Pluto are absent on Charon. Pluto has a significant atmosphere; Charon does not. On Pluto, exotic ices like frozen nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide have been found, while Charon’s surface is made of frozen water and ammonia compounds. The interior of Pluto is mostly rock, while Charon contains equal measures of rock and water ice.

Image of Pluto only from the New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), July 8, 2015. Most of the bright features around Pluto’s edge are a result of image processing, but the bright sliver below the dark “whale,” which is also visible in unprocessed images, is real. (Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)
Image of Pluto only from the New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), July 8, 2015. Most of the bright features around Pluto’s edge are a result of image processing, but the bright sliver below the dark “whale,” which is also visible in unprocessed images, is real. (Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)

“These two objects have been together for billions of years, in the same orbit, but they are totally different,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.

Charon is about 750 miles (1200 kilometers) across, about half the diameter of Pluto—making it the solar system’s largest moon relative to its planet. Its smaller size and lower surface contrast have made it harder for New Horizons to capture its surface features from afar, but the latest, closer images of Charon’s surface show intriguing fine details.

Image of Charon only from the New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), July 8, 2015. (Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)
Image of Charon only from the New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), July 8, 2015. (Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)

Newly revealed are brighter areas on Charon that members of the mission’s Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team (GGI) suspect might be impact craters. If so, the scientists would put them to good use. “If we see impact craters on Charon, it will help us see what’s hidden beneath the surface,” said GGI leader Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Large craters can excavate material from several miles down and reveal the composition of the interior.”

In short, said GGI deputy team leader John Spencer of SwRI, “Charon is now emerging as its own world. Its personality is beginning to really reveal itself.”

Pluto: The Other Red Planet

What color is Pluto? The answer, revealed in the first maps made from New Horizons data, turns out to be shades of reddish brown. Although this is reminiscent of Mars, the cause is almost certainly very different. On Mars the coloring agent is iron oxide, commonly known as rust. On the dwarf planet Pluto, the reddish color is likely caused by hydrocarbon molecules that are formed when cosmic rays and solar ultraviolet light interact with methane in Pluto’s atmosphere and on its surface.

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New Horizons Reveals Two Distinct Faces of Pluto

Two hemispheres of Pluto. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
Two hemispheres of Pluto. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

BALTIMORE, Md. (NASA PR) — New color images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show two very different faces of the mysterious dwarf planet, one with a series of intriguing spots along the equator that are evenly spaced. Each of the spots is about 300 miles in diameter, with a surface area that’s roughly the size of the state of Missouri.

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New Horizons Finds Methane on Pluto

The location of the New Horizons Ralph instrument, which detected methane on Pluto, is shown. The inset is a false color image of Pluto and Charon in infrared light; pink indicates methane on Pluto’s surface. (Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
The location of the New Horizons Ralph instrument, which detected methane on Pluto, is shown. The inset is a false color image of Pluto and Charon in infrared light; pink indicates methane on Pluto’s surface. (Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (NASA PR) — Yes, there is methane on Pluto, and, no, it doesn’t come from cows. The infrared spectrometer on NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft has detected frozen methane on Pluto’s surface; Earth-based astronomers first observed the chemical compound on Pluto in 1976.

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NASA’s Hubble Finds Pluto’s Moons Tumbling in Absolute Chaos

This illustration shows the scale and comparative brightness of Pluto’s small satellites. The surface craters are for illustration only and do not represent real imaging data. [Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Feild (STScI)]
This illustration shows the scale and comparative brightness of Pluto’s small satellites. The surface craters are for illustration only and do not represent real imaging data. [Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Feild (STScI)]
WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — If you lived on one of Pluto’s moons, you might have a hard time determining when, or from which direction, the sun will rise each day. Comprehensive analysis of data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows that two of Pluto’s moons, Nix and Hydra, wobble unpredictably.

“Hubble has provided a new view of Pluto and its moons revealing a cosmic dance with a chaotic rhythm,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “When the New Horizons spacecraft flies through the Pluto system in July we’ll get a chance to see what these moons look like up close and personal.”

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New Horizons to Arrive at Pluto in 3 Months

New Horizons spacecraft (Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI)
New Horizons spacecraft (Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is three months from returning to humanity the first-ever close up images and scientific observations of distant Pluto and its system of large and small moons.

“Scientific literature is filled with papers on the characteristics of Pluto and its moons from ground based and Earth orbiting space observations, but we’ve never studied Pluto up close and personal,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut, and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington.  “In an unprecedented flyby this July, our knowledge of what the Pluto systems is really like will expand exponentially and I have no doubt there will be exciting discoveries.”

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