Startling Discoveries from Pluto’s Moon

July 16, 2015


It’s taken more than nine years and three billion miles of space travel, but NASA released on Wednesday the first batch of mesmerizing close-up images of the icy mountains and geologically active moons of Pluto. “We have completed the initial reconnaissance of the solar system, ” says S. Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

What has astonished scientists with these high resolution images is what Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, has revealed. Much like Pluto’s ice-peaked terrain, Charon’s surface is made up of cliffs, throughs and a mysterious gash estimated to be 4 to 6 miles deep. But what’s notable is this moon’s lack of craters, suggesting geological activity within the last 100 million years that has erased traces of earlier impacts. Before these images of Charon, the geology of other icy moons in our solar system, such as those of Jupiter and Saturn, were thought to be the result of their planet’s powerful push and pull, what scientists call tidal heating.

“This is the first time we’ve seen geology on an icy world that isn’t orbiting a giant planet that can deform it on a regular basis,” said John Spencer, a mission co-investigator, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times. “This is telling us that you do not need tidal heating to power geologic activity on icy worlds.”

If these moons have their own geology this could indicate subterranean oceans or interior radioactive elements giving off heat. Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist on the mission said, “It just blew our socks off.”

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