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Charon’s turn in the spotlight

NEW HORIZONS is definitely the gift that keeps on giving – and will be that for at least a year, as more and more images are received by the science team and then, after processing, released to the public and the media. In my last blog post I highlighted the latest images of Pluto to be released into the wild by the NEW HORIZONS team; today it’s the turn of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, to enjoy the spotlight…

Last night the NEW HORIZONS team released a new batch of images the probe took of Charon as it whooshed through the Pluto system. They offered our most detailed look yet at this moon, which took everyone by surprise during the flyby by looking incredibly interesting – with craters, vast canyons and dark plains – instead of being the dull and boring icy ball it was widely expected to be.

Before looking at the latest pics – well. my processed versions of them – it’s worth jumping in the TARDIS and going back to 1978 when Charon was discovered. On the discovery image (below, left) it is just a blob on the side of Pluto, which itself is just a larger, grainy blob. Below, right, is one of the first images of Charon the NEW HORIZONS tea released after the historic fly-by. Click on it (and all the others) to enlarge it.

collage charon

That image showed Charon to be a fascinating object, with a dark polar hood, lots of craters and at least one large valley system. Ever since then, Pluto fans have been looking forward to seeing more detailed views of Charon – and last night we got some!

Here’s one of the “raw” images released onto the NEW HORIZONS website last night…


That wide valley is “Serenity Chasma”, named after the spaceship in the hugely popular SF series (and film) “Serenity”. Last night’s release included several different images of the valley, which was good news for people like me because it meant it was then possible to stitch them all together to make a single view of the whole valley…

charon valley bf

LOVE that view! In fact, with around half a dozen new images of Charon released it was possible to make a new portrait of a good area of the moon…

pano9 charon

But when I looked a bit closer at the terrain to the left of Serenity Chasma, something… interesting… jumped out of the screen…

charon flows fIt’s not obvious on that view there, so let’s zoom in a bit… and I’ll put a circle around it for you 🙂

charon flows f crop

Hmmm… look at those…. now, I’m no geologist or planetary scientist, I write this blog purely as an armchair enthusiast, but those features look rather like flow features to me. Some material has moved down that crater wall and spread out across the lower ground beneath it. And that is very interesting.

We’ve seen this elsewhere, of course. On Mars, many craters have been photographed with landslides of material slumping down their sides – like this one, which happens to be my very favourite crater on the whole of the planet. Yes, that’s how big a geek I am, I have a  Very Favourite crater on Mars…

slumpElsewhere on Mars we see other craters which have complete aprons of material spread out around them…

Hephaestus_Fossae_perspective_view-360x288Those tend to be up near the poles, where meteorite impacts into ground rich with subsurface ice have melted it and turned the ground into slushy mud which has flowed away from the impact site. But the features on that image of Charon look smaller and more well-defined, so they must either be landslides of material that have slumped down from the crater wall, or flows of material from… something else.

flows close upBut what? An ice volcano or vent, perhaps? Way, waaaay too soon to say, but I hope we get better images of them at some point, because they’re certainly intriguing.

To finish this post, let’s just remind ourselves how dramatically our view of Charon has changed since its discovery way back in 1978 – from a blob on the side of a bigger blob, to a world in its own right…


UPDATE: I made this new version of my Charon mosaic, think it shows more detail…

pano9 charon

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