New Horizons Uncovers Charon's Violent Past

October 8, 2015 | Sarah Tse

New images of Pluto’s moon sent back from New Horizons reveal an amazingly diverse landscape that suggests a troubled geological past.

Scientists on the New Horizons team weren’t expecting much from the spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto’s moon Charon. But they probably should have learned their lesson after similarly low expectations of Pluto were wildly exceeded earlier this summer. New images sent back by the probe show that Charon is just as rich with compelling geological features as its host planet, boasting a surprising breadth of surface characteristics and topology that show the moon has gone through a rough ride.

The array of mountains, landslides, and color variations forms the stage of some truly epic geological battles. New Horizons astronomers are particularly interested in the belt of canyons and fractures that stretches 1,600 km across the moon’s equator, four times as long as the Grand Canyon and twice as deep in some places. This canyon divides the moon’s vastly different terrains. The northern hemisphere is full of harsh mountain ranges and craters.

SEE ALSO: Soar Over Pluto In This Bird's Eye Tour

South of this canyon, though, lies a strangely smooth expanse that alludes to recent resurfacing. These younger plains could in fact be the frozen lava-flows of ice volcanoes, according to New Horizons team member Paul Schenk. “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,” he said in a NASA press release.

Take a look at Charon’s riveting landscape in the video above. The flyby starts over the dark region called “Mordor” near the moon’s north pole, then swings south to explore the equatorial canyon system. The camera then pans further south over the smooth plains sculpted by ice lava, near a moat mountain called Kubrick Mons.

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