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Pluto’s Charon reveals colorful and violent past

NASA’s New Horizons shuttle wasn’t only taking mind blowing photos of Pluto, it was also peeking at Pluto’s moons, especially Charon – the largest one. The latest set of images analyzed by NASA researchers revealed quite a busy past, filled with violence and geologic activity.

Charon in Enhanced Color NASA’s New Horizons captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Charon just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC); the colors are processed to best highlight the variation of surface properties across Charon. Charon’s color palette is not as diverse as Pluto’s; most striking is the reddish north (top) polar region, informally named Mordor Macula. Charon is 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across; this image resolves details as small as 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers).

Charon is the largest and best studied moon of Pluto. It is a very large moon in comparison to its parent body, Pluto, and some astronomers have argued that Charon itself should be considered a dwarf planet like Pluto, and not a moon. nlike Pluto’s surface, which is composed of nitrogen and methane ices, Charon’s surface appears to be dominated by the less volatile water ice. The south polar area is dominated by a very large dark area informally dubbed “Mordor” by the New Horizons team. Aside from Mordor, however, New Horizons imaged very few other impact craters on Charon and found a youthful surface, adding support to the above theory that Charon is geologically active and thus probably differentiated (meaning it has a crust, a mantle and a core).

“We thought the probability of seeing such interesting features on this satellite of a world at the far edge of our solar system was low,” said Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, “but I couldn’t be more delighted with what we see.”

For starters, the features are incredibly visible – you can see craters, ridges, and even fractures on its surface, but the most spectacular feature is definitely a huge canyon. The canyon stretches more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the entire face of Charon and likely around onto Charon’s far side, four times larger than the Grand Canyon, indicating a huge geologic upheaval in Charon’s past.

“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” said John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”

High-resolution images of Charon were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shortly before closest approach on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced color from the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Charon’s cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum. The scene covers Charon’s width of 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) and resolves details as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers).

They also found that the moon’s southern part has way fewer craters than the northern part. The smoothness of the plains, as well as their grooves and faint ridges, are clear signs of wide-scale resurfacing. This could be the effect of a kind of cold volcanic activity, called cryovolcanism.

“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,” said Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

Right now, the existence (and extent) of geological features on Charon has taken both astronomers and geologists by surprise, but they couldn’t be more thrilled. The good news is that even more pictures of Charon are currently being sent by New Horizons, and some of them will come in even better resolution. We’ll keep you posted as that happens.

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC).

“I predict Charon’s story will become even more amazing!” said mission Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Even more awesome images of Pluto released!

I know, I know, we’ve spoiled you with awesome photos of Pluto already, this couldn’t possibly surprise you, could it? Well, I dare say NASA has done it again – this new batch of New Horizons images is absolutely breathtaking.

Majestic Mountains and Frozen Plains: Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

New Horizons is an interplanetary space probe launched to study Pluto and the outer areas of our solar system. On July 14, 2015 11:49 UTC (07:49 EDT), it flew 12,500 km (7,800 mi) above the surface of Pluto, making it the first human spacecraft to study the small planetoid. It took so many photos and analyzed so much information that NASA will be downloading it for about a year.

These oblique images offer an unprecedented look into Pluto’s landscapes, with dramatic backlighting from the Sun. The scene above measures 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) across. It almost looks like taken from a hot air balloon.

“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.”

Pluto’s Majestic Mountains, Frozen Plains and Foggy Hazes: Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

But it’s not just pretty pictures – New Horizons images offer a trove of valuable information about Pluto. Along with the previous photos, NASA now believe Pluto has an Earth-like hydrological cycle, but one which involves soft and exotic ices like nitrogen, instead of water.

“In addition to being visually stunning, these low-lying hazes hint at the weather changing from day to day on Pluto, just like it does here on Earth,” said Will Grundy, lead of the New Horizons Composition team from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona.

Pluto’s ‘Heart’: Sputnik Planum is the informal name of the smooth, light-bulb shaped region on the left of this composite of several New Horizons images of Pluto. The brilliantly white upland region to the right may be coated by nitrogen ice that has been transported through the atmosphere from the surface of Sputnik Planum, and deposited on these uplands. The box shows the location of the glacier detail images below.


Valley Glaciers on Pluto: Ice (probably frozen nitrogen) that appears to have accumulated on the uplands on the right side of this 390-mile (630-kilometer) wide image is draining from Pluto’s mountains onto the informally named Sputnik Planum through the 2- to 5-mile (3- to 8- kilometer) wide valleys indicated by the red arrows. The flow front of the ice moving into Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. The origin of the ridges and pits on the right side of the image remains uncertain.


This comes as a surprise because NASA wasn’t expecting to find liquid or frozen nitrogen at all – let alone a hydrological cycle.

“We did not expect to find hints of a nitrogen-based glacial cycle on Pluto operating in the frigid conditions of the outer solar system,” said Alan Howard, a member of the mission’s Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “Driven by dim sunlight, this would be directly comparable to the hydrological cycle that feeds ice caps on Earth, where water is evaporated from the oceans, falls as snow, and returns to the seas through glacial flow.Pluto is surprisingly Earth-like in this regard,” added Stern, “and no one predicted it.”

The next step is to study the photos and determine, from the morphology what kind of geological and erosional features are present on Pluto. They’ve already identified some interesting features.

ntricate Valley Glaciers on Pluto: This image covers the same region as the image above, but is re-projected from the oblique, backlit view shown in the new crescent image of Pluto. The backlighting highlights the intricate flow lines on the glaciers. The flow front of the ice moving into the informally named Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. The origin of the ridges and pits on the right side of the image remains uncertain. This image is 390 miles (630 kilometers) across.


They’re here: NASA’s best up-close and personal photos of Pluto

New close-ups of Pluto’s surface have been revealed by NASA today, revealing a stunning variety of features on the frozen planetoid. A range of majestic mountains surrounds seemingly endless plains, and now, we get to see them all with unprecedented quality.

pluto new horizons

This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

It’s so spectacular that even NASA’s investigators were surprised.

“Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado. “If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top — but that’s what is actually there.”

The New Horizons space probe was the first space probe to investigate Pluto up-close, but it already passed by the planetoid in July, so why are we seeing these photos just now? Well, New Horizons took a massive amount of data and it will take about a year before NASA is able to download all the data – and it will also take a while to analyze them. In the meantime, we have to settle for these gorgeous pics.

pluto new horizons

Mosaic of high-resolution images of Pluto, sent back from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft from Sept. 5 to 7, 2015. The image is dominated by the informally-named icy plain Sputnik Planum, the smooth, bright region across the center. This image also features a tremendous variety of other landscapes surrounding Sputnik. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

But aside from being stunning, the photos highlight the surprising diversity of features on Pluto. Possible dunes, nitrogen ice flows that apparently oozed out of mountainous regions onto plains, and even networks of valleys that may have been carved by material flowing over Pluto’s surface were spotted.

“The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “The randomly jumbled mountains might be huge blocks of hard water ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the region informally named Sputnik Planum.”

pluto new horizons

In the center of this 300-mile (470-kilometer) wide image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is a large region of jumbled, broken terrain on the northwestern edge of the vast, icy plain informally called Sputnik Planum, to the right. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. This image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Old, heavily cratered terrain sits next to young, pristine fields. But the most surprising things are the dunes (yet unconfirmed).

“Seeing dunes on Pluto — if that is what they are — would be completely wild, because Pluto’s atmosphere today is so thin,” said William B. McKinnon, a GGI deputy lead from Washington University, St. Louis. “Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we haven’t figured out is at work. It’s a head-scratcher.”

The images are so detailed that you can actually do (large scale) geologic studies on them – which in itself is amazing. Who would have thought, a few decades ago, that we’ll be able to study the geology of something 3 billion kilometers away?

“This bonus twilight view is a wonderful gift that Pluto has handed to us,” said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from SwRI. “Now we can study geology in terrain that we never expected to see.”

pluto new horizons

This 220-mile (350-kilometer) wide view of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft illustrates the incredible diversity of surface reflectivities and geological landforms on the dwarf planet. The image includes dark, ancient heavily cratered terrain; bright, smooth geologically young terrain; assembled masses of mountains; and an enigmatic field of dark, aligned ridges that resemble dunes; its origin is under debate. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Discoveries aren’t limited to Pluto’s surface – New Horizons also snapped a few images of Pluto’s moons Charon, Nix, and Hydra, which will be released on Friday.

This image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon, taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft 10 hours before its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 290,000 miles (470,000 kilometers. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Two different versions of an image of Pluto’s haze layers, taken by New Horizons as it looked back at Pluto’s dark side nearly 16 hours after close approach, from a distance of 480,000 miles (770,000 kilometers), at a phase angle of 166 degrees. Pluto’s north is at the top, and the sun illuminates Pluto from the upper right. These images are much higher quality than the digitally compressed images of Pluto’s haze downlinked and released shortly after the July 14 encounter, and allow many new details to be seen. The left version has had only minor processing, while the right version has been specially processed to reveal a large number of discrete haze layers in the atmosphere. In the left version, faint surface details on the narrow sunlit crescent are seen through the haze in the upper right of Pluto’s disk, and subtle parallel streaks in the haze may be crepuscular rays- shadows cast on the haze by topography such as mountain ranges on Pluto, similar to the rays sometimes seen in the sky after the sun sets behind mountains on Earth. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute


Pluto is covered in ice and has an atmosphere, new pics reveal

New Horizons has sent over so much data that NASA will be analyzing and learning more about Pluto for over a year – such is the case now: these new images from New Horizons reveal flowing ice, impressive mountain ranges and a surprisingly thick atmosphere.

Artistic representation of Pluto’s ice. Image via Space Flight Insider.

In recent years, Pluto was quite a hot topic. First of all, there where the talks about not calling it a planet anymore, and then the demotion actually happened. Some people still call it a planet, but for all scientific purposes, it’s a dwarf planet; and now, recently, the New Horizons shuttle started to approach Pluto. First from a distance, shyly, then closer and closer, until it ultimately passed right in front of it, continuing its journey to the outskirts of the solar system.

Thanks to that, we’ve been learning more and more about this mysterious planetoid.

“Pluto has a very complicated story to tell,” Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, said at the news conference. “There is a lot of work that we need to do to understand this very complicated place.”

At a press conference, he showed a haze in a real-color picture of Pluto; that haze is Pluto’s atmosphere.

Pluto’s hazy atmosphere. Image via NASA.

“This is one of our first images of Pluto’s atmosphere. [It] stunned the encounter team,” said Michael Summers, a New Horizons co-investigator based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, at today’s news conference. “For 25 years, we’ve known that Pluto has an atmosphere. But it’s been known by numbers. This is our first picture. This is the first time we’ve really seen it. This was the image that almost brought tears to the eyes of the atmospheric scientists on our team.”

The haze extends at least 100 miles (160 km) above the surface of Pluto, five times more than models assumed; needless to say, this came as a surprise.

Pluto, in real color. Image via NASA.

In another set of images, Pluto revealed what appears to be a wide, flowing field of glaciers: the smooth, light-colored upper-left lobe of the heart-shaped region. However, unlike Earth’s glaciers, Pluto’s aren’t made from water, but from nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane. This type of glaciers are much more malleable, even at extremely low temperatures. The images clearly show that Pluto’s ice is still flowing today. Scientists were thrilled.

“To see evidence of recent geological activity is simply a dream come true,” McKinnon said. “The appearance of this terrain, the utter lack of impact craters on Sputnik Planum, tells us that this is really a young unit.”

But there is one more element which adds to Pluto’s complexity: it’s almost perfectly spherical. We tend to think of Earth as a sphere, but Earth’s shape is far from being a perfect sphere. Why Pluto took this shape is still anyone’s guess, but astronomers already have a theory.

“We actually can’t detect any obliqueness or out-of-roundness in the body,” McKinnon said. Many other bodies in the solar system have distortions to their roundness, which “tells you about their history,” he said. “Pluto was probably spinning very, very fast after what we believe to be a giant impact that led to the formation of [Charon],” McKinnon added, noting that the gravitational pull of the two bodies on each other would have, over time, slowed down Pluto’s rapid rotation.

New Horizons made its Pluto flyby on July 14, and it will take 16 months before all the data is downloaded here on Earth. No doubt, more is to come.

Pluto through the years: GIF shows how our vision of the dwarf planet gradually improved

GIF via Explore.

OK, I know, you’ve already had your full of Pluto news, but seriously – this GIF is just spectacular. It shows just how far we’ve come, from not knowing about the planet, to seeing it just as a few white pixels, to incredibly clear images of Pluto’s surface, with even mountains being visible. Clyde Tombaugh first shot the planet at the Lowell Observatory in 1930, and the New Horizons took the most detailed pictures in its flyby just a few days ago.

If (plot twist) you somehow haven’t read all the new about Pluto and new Horizons, you may want to read these articles:

New Horizons images of Pluto hold big surprises for scientists

The soaring ice mountains of Pluto are accompanied by wide plains and mysterious deep troughs, show photographs received from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

“When I saw this image for the first time, I decided I was going to call it not-easy-to-explain terrain,” said Jeffrey Moore, the leader of the geology, geophysics and imaging team for New Horizons, which visited Pluto this week. “You can clearly see that we’ve discovered a vast craterless plain that has some strange story to tell.”

Dr. Moore and other mission scientists described some additional data received during a press conference held on Friday. It has been a busy and exciting week for the team, as they try to make heads and tails of some of the more puzzling of images.

“I’m a little biased, but I think the solar system saved the best for last,” said S. Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons.

It took the craft nine and a half years to journey the three billion miles to Pluto, and passed within 7,800 miles (roughly 12.553 km) of its surface on Tuesday. It was traveling to fast to be able to enter the dwarf planet’s orbit and zipped past, leaving it more than two million miles behind by now.

The spacecraft is expected to gather a huge amount of data: by the end of the month, its on-board memory is estimated to hold 50 billion bits of data. Due to the slow speed at which communications can be carried out over interplanetary distances, however, only 2 percent of it has been sent back to us.

The first close-up snapshot of Pluto, released on Wednsday, show its mountains to be 11,000 feet high bodies of water ice, not rock. What came as a surprise is that there were no craters on this part of the planet, of about 150 by 150 miles wide. Craters have been spotted in the global view of Pluto, and other regions could be geologically much older.

The new snapshot described by Dr. Moore on Friday was near the mountains and likewise devoid of craters, but it was almost flat. The lack of craters indicates that the surface was erased by erosion or tectonic activity in the recent geological past — within the past 100 million years.

Measurements of New Horizons’ “Ralph” tool found carbon monoxide ice, represented by the green graphic, on the western end of Pluto’s heart-shaped region.
Image via NASA

“This could be only a week old, for all we know,” Dr. Moore said.

Dr. Moore speculated that the troughs, zoning the plains into irregular shapes 12 to 20 miles across, could be caused by convection of carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen ices below the surface, “creating the same sort of patterns that you see when you look at the surface of a boiling pot of oatmeal, or like the blobs in a lava lamp.”

Another possibility is that they could be similar to mud cracks on Earth, caused as the soil dries and contracts, Dr. Moore said. The shapes are reminiscent of those seen near the north pole on Mars, but it was too early to tell if similar geological processes had shaped them.

Pluto had its moment – now Charon, Pluto’s Moon is in the spotlight

OK, we all know New Horizons zoomed past Pluto, took some breathtaking pictures and then called back home to tell us everything’s fine. But let’s switch our attention a bit and focus on Charon – Pluto’s Moon that’s just as mysterious as its name implies.

Image via NASA.

Charon is the largest of the five known moons of the dwarf planet Pluto, at about 11% of the mass of Pluto. It was named after the ferryman in Greek mythology who would take people’s souls to Hades. Now, as NASA is receiving more and more data taken by the New Horizons, we’re getting the chance to look at more and more detailed pictures of Charon; one of them in particular has sparked researchers’ interest.

The latest sliver shows a 200-mile-long portion of Charon that shows some striking geological features: specifically, we see a deep depression with a high mountain rising out of it. It’s like a geological castle.

“The most intriguing feature is a large mountain sitting in a moat,” Jeff Moore, who leads New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team, said in a statement. “This is a feature that has geologists stunned and stumped.”

Charon is also pummeled with impact craters, something which can’t be said about Pluto. Actually, let’s go back to Pluto for a second. The presence of mountains on the dwarf planet, along with the absence of impact craters seems to suggests active uplift phenomenon, which is extremely interesting, because there’s no apparent mechanism driving it. Oh, and whatever may drive it, Charon doesn’t have it, so the mystery deepens.

But this doesn’t mean that Charon isn’t active geologically. A previous image has already revealed a large smooth region in Charon’s southern hemisphere suggesting the contrary.

NASA plans to release even more high-resolution images of Charon’s surface in the coming days.

Welcome back to the family, Pluto!

Before you get overly excited, no, Pluto hasn’t been once again accepted as a planet – it’s still officially a dwarf planet (though in our hearts, you’ll always be a planet, Pluto!). However, this emblematic picture of the solar system from my childhood is now complete, as seen in this great family portrait produced by Ben Gross, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Basically, we have at least the one good image of all the worlds in our solar system.

photo credit: Welcome to the family. Ben Gross/twitter, CC BY-SA

But as we celebrate New Horizon’s success and its retrieval of accurate Pluto images, it’s worth remembering that there are 50 years of work in this photo. The first ever accurate picture of another planet happened in 1962, when NASA’s Mariner 2 flew by Venus. Here’s a breakdown of how we got all these images:

  • Mercury: Mariner 10 (1973)
  • Venus: Mariner 2 (1962)
  • Mars: Mariner 4 (1965)
  • Jupiter: Pioneer 10 (1973)
  • Saturn: Pioneer 11 (1979)
  • Uranus: Voyager 2 (1985)
  • Neptune: Voyager 2 (1989)
  • Pluto: New Horizons (2015)

It took us 26 years to finally have Pluto! But science never sits still, no matter how strong some people try to stop it. When New Horizons left Earth in January 2006, Pluto was a planet – now it’s not, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. In fact, there are quite a few non-planets worth studying within our solar system. The Planetary Society’s Senior Editor, Emily Lakdawalla, has created this montage of the largest and most interesting asteroids, dwarf planets and moon.

Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. The Moon: Gari Arrillaga. Other data: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/SwRI/UCLA/MPS/IDA. Processing by Ted Stryk, Gordan Ugarkovic, Emily Lakdawalla, and Jason Perry.

Pluto across the years

Pluto likely hasn’t changed that much in recent years, but the way we see it has. It used to be just a few white pixels when it was discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh – a start contrast to the detailed image we have today. NASA twitted a short video with some of the best images we have of the dwarf planet:

Spectacular, isn’t it? But for me, a little something special still steals the show:

New Horizons and Pluto: Everything You Wanted to Know

Speeding at 14 km per second, NASA’s New Horizons shuttle went past Pluto, hurdling towards the edge of the Solar System. But regardless of what happens, New Horizons’ flyby of the dwarf planet will remained firmly anchored in the history of space exploration.

This is the best photo of Pluto we have. Yes, if you’re wondering, this is true color. Thank you, NASA!

“We have completed the initial reconnaissance of the Solar System, an endeavour started under President Kennedy more than 50 years ago and continuing to today under President Obama,” said the mission’s chief scientist, Alan Stern. “It’s really historic what the US has done, and the New Horizons team is really proud to have been able to run that anchor leg and make this accomplishment.”

As so many scientists have put it: this truly is space exploration. This is going past to the boundaries and past, reaching the very edges of our Solar System, just 112 years after the first plane took off the ground. Nasa’s science chief, John Grunsfeld, said:

“This is true exploration… that view is just the first of many rewards the team will get. Pluto is an extraordinarily complex and interesting world.”

So, we got a chance to get a good look at Pluto, and the tiny former planet is definitely an interesting and active place. It has an apparently active geology, a climate, and almost certainly, many secrets awaiting to be uncovered. Dr. Stern adds:

“On the surface we see a history of impacts, we see a history of surface activity in terms of some features we might be able to interpret as tectonic – indicating internal activity on the planet at some point in its past, and maybe even in its present. This is clearly a world where geology and atmosphere – climatology – play a role. Pluto has strong atmospheric cycles. It snows on the surface. These snows sublimate – (and) go back into the atmosphere – every 248-year orbit.”

The New Horizons team celebrates closest approach.

Just because Pluto isn’t a planet anymore, doesn’t make it a less interesting place. While we won’t go into the debate of whether or not Pluto is or should be considered a planet, it’s worth noting that there’s quite a significant generation gap here: people who learned the planets in recent years likely won’t consider it a planet, while many of us still do. In fact,  the head of NASA, Charles Bolden, still considers it to be a planet. He also praised the entire New Horizons project:

“We’re calling Pluto a planet, technically it’s a dwarf planet. I call it a planet, but I’m not the rule maker. We wanted to demonstrate that we could navigate the last known planet in our Solar System. That is an incredible technological achievement.” He was also surprised to see just how active and diverse Pluto is. Mr Bolden added: “ I expected to see some cold, grey icy planet. It has reddish tint, not unlike Mars. That’s fascinating. We continue to be mesmerised by this incredible planet and its moons.”

Measurements sent back by New Horizons as it came close to Pluto showed that the dwarf planet was 20-30 kilometers larger than previously thought, with a radius of 736 miles – which makes it larger than Eris, a body discovered in 2005. The fact that Pluto was smaller than Eris was one of the strongest arguments for reclassifying Pluto as a minor planet in 2006. He’s also not the only one excited to learn more about Pluto.

Pluto’s size relative to Earth (also presented: Charon, Pluto’s Moon)

“Maybe we need to reconsider its status again,” said Dr Daniel Brown, an astronomy expert at Nottingham Trent University. “What once was a planet and was demoted to a dwarf planet, obscure and without any clear images of the surface, will now be explored to great depth.”

British astronomer Brendan Owens, from the Greenwich Royal Observatory in London echoed the same thoughts:

“This is really unexplored territory. The images of Pluto we got previously have been only a few pixels across, just showing areas of light and dark on this world. Now we’re getting up close and personal, something that has never been done before. This whole region is hard for astronomers to explore because we rely on light, and at that distance so little sunlight falls on these objects that you have very little data to work with. Learning about the composition of Pluto may give us more of a handle on the make-up of the solar system.”

So what’s next for New Horizons? Well, after departing from Pluto, it will start exploring ‘The Third Zone’ also known as the mysterious Kuiper Belt – a region of the Solar System beyond the planets, that’s basically a bunch of uncharted debris left over from the solar system’s formation 4.56 billion years ago. The probe is still adequately fueled, so it can keep going until the Mid-2030s and keep sending valuable data back to Earth.

After that, it will leave the solar system.

“Over the next 20 years it could operate and return scientific data, from a Kuiper Belt flyby and then we have a chance to go further out of the heliosphere (Solar System) and potentially cross the interstellar boundary and sample interstellar space,” said Dr Stern.

As it turns out, NASA’s researchers made accurate predictions regarding Pluto.

If you still have questions, scientists working at the New Horizons mission were answering questions at Reddit. Here are some of the most interesting ones:

What is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about Pluto since the mission began?

Charon’s dark pole surprised us quite a bit. We expected Charon’s surface to be mostly uniform and featureless.

What is next for New Horizons?
What do we hope to learn about Pluto?
What other information/pictures/data will New Horizons be sending back?
What has your day been like and what does it feel like to be part of the team?

1.Next is all of the data download. It will take ~16 months to download the amazing data.
2.We hope to learn about Pluto and its five known moons. The atmosphere, the geology, the composition of the rocks, and much much more.
3.New Horizons has seven instruments – ALICE, LORRI, PEPSSI, RALPH, REX, SDC, SWAP, so lots of data will be coming down in addition to the images you have seen already.
4.Today has been great. We all gathered and counted down to the closest approach. I can only imagine how exciting tonight will be when NH phones home.

The latest images suggest Pluto’s surface is much newer than Charon’s, even though the dwarf planet and it’s moon are the same age. Are there any theories in the works about the resurfacing process and it’s cause?

There are two likely reasons, but forthcoming New Horizons’ data will hopefully let us refine these or figure out a better reason. One is that Pluto is larger than Charon, so it can retain more heat and have active geology longer. Another is that Pluto has a tenuous atmosphere, and during the 248-year orbit around the sun, the atmosphere sublimates from one area in sun and is deposited in another in darkness, and then this reverses half-way through the orbit. This process is very slow, relatively speaking, but so is cratering.

Will we see detailed photos of Pluto’s moons in near future too?

Charon, yes. Hydra, yes (tomorrow or Thursday!). Nix, perhaps, but not Styx nor Kerberos.

Pluto has a heart – NASA reveals spectacular images of the dwarf planet

Pluto, the Solar System’s most well known planet wanna-be is having its week in the spotlight: NASA’s New Horizons probe is offering an unprecedented look at the dwarf planet, and already revealing some interesting features.

Note the brighter heart-like feature in the lower right. Seriously Pluto, why are you so cute? (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Astronomers were thrilled to present the clearest image of the brown-reddish Pluto taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) onboard the New Horizons shuttle. As the shuttle passes right in besides Pluto, it will focus approximately on the same area, and we’ll be able to see it in even more detail.

“The next time we see this part of Pluto at closest approach, a portion of this region will be imaged at about 500 times better resolution than we see today. It will be incredible!,” said Jeff Moore, Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team Leader of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

The image shows three distinct areas with different brightness, and it also shows that Pluto doesn’t only have a heart… it also has a whale! You can spot the “whale” (a dark spot) in the lower left of this new photo. The heart we’ve actually seen before, and NASA astronomers suspect it is the result of recently formed frost with a very distinguishing shape.

But it’s not just New Horizons that has its eyes peeled at Pluto. Much of NASA’s fleet of observatories have taken a break from their day to day work and are focusing on the dwarf planet.

“NASA is aiming some of our most powerful space observatories at Pluto,” said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division Director at NASA Headquarters, Washington. “With their unique capabilities combined, we will have a multi-faceted view of the Pluto system complementary to New Horizons data.”

Most notably, the Cassini probe will also gaze at Pluto – but although Cassini is the closest thing to Pluto except New Horizons, it’s still really far away. Pluto will be little more than a bright dot.

“The Cassini team has been pleased to provide occasional imaging support for New Horizons for several years to aid with the Pluto-bound spacecraft’s navigation. It’s great to provide one last look as it soars through the Pluto system,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

New Horizons is set to make its historical flyby of Pluto next week, we’ll keep you posted with updates.

New Horizons Shuttle Starts Preparing for Pluto Encounter

We’ve kept you up to date with New Horizon’s progress, and the pictures it took of Pluto; now, after 10 years and 3 billion miles, the shuttle will pass close to Pluto – only 7,800 miles away from it.

This image taken in late June shows Pluto (lower right) and Charon, its largest moon (upper left). New Horizons is set to pass closest to Pluto on July 14. JHUAPL/NASA/SWRI

With each passing day, we got a better look at Pluto, and with each passing day, we learned a lot about it, but it’s all going to get much better. On Tuesday the probe will begin an intensive nine-day study of Pluto and its moons.

The dwarf planet was discovered in 1930 and was originally considered the ninth planet from the Sun. Its status as a planet fell into question following further study of it and the outer Solar System over the following 75 years. After all these years, on 14 July 2015, the New Horizons probe will fly by Pluto, become the first spacecraft to ever do so. The goal of the mission is to understand the formation of the Pluto system, the Kuiper Belt, and the transformation of the early Solar System – yes, we can learn clues about all of those by studying Pluto.

The spacecraft will study the atmospheres, surfaces, interiors and environments of Pluto and its moons. It will also study other objects in the Kuiper Belt and keep an eye out for other interesting developments. The belt “contains a very large number — probably billions — of comets, and potentially other small worlds, perhaps even ones as large as Pluto.

But this is no easy feat. Pluto is so far away that it takes information four and a half hours to get from the spacecraft to Earth.

“From Earth to Pluto, where our spacecraft is, is going to be about 4 ½ hours,” says Alice Bowman, the Mission Operations Manager of New Horizons. “So the information that we’re receiving right now was sent 4 ½ hours earlier.”

This doesn’t only cause a lag in information sending, it also means that scientists can’t control New Horizons in real time – they designed in such a way that it adapted to problems and managed mostly by itself.

“No operator can sit on Earth and use a joystick to control where the spacecraft is looking or taking observations,” Bowman says. “Pretty much you have to make a very smart spacecraft.”

The stakes are high. We talk about Pluto a lot, but if we wrote all the specific data we know about it, we probably couldn’t even fill a piece of paper. This is basically the first serious look at an unexplored part of our solar system, and during the 9 days, New Horizons will make over a thousand scientific observations. Its scientific instruments will probe Pluto for evidence of its composition, terrain and atmosphere.

The closest shot of Pluto made by New Horizon yet. Image: NASA

Here’s our closest image of Pluto so far, taken just this morning

Racing at a pace of about a million miles per day, the New Horizon craft is getting closer to Pluto and so are the pictures it’s beaming back. Previously, we’ve shown you the first colored pics of Pluto taken by New Horizon, and its moons. Some of you were disappointed when you got to see only a couple of pale pixels, so this latest shot taken just this morning might be more exciting to watch.

The closest shot of Pluto made by New Horizon yet. Image: NASA

The closest shot of Pluto made by New Horizon yet. Image: NASA

This time you can clearly distinguish Pluto and its largest moon Charon. And if you raise the brightness of your display a couple of notches, you’ll be able to distinguish its other two moons, Hydra and Nix. If you’re wondering what’s with the star-trails, here’s an explanation from NASA:

“This image contains one or more objects whose brightness exceeds the detector’s saturation level. This sometimes produces a “tail” of bright and/or dark pixels to the right of the object. You may also notice a faint vertical white stripe passing through the saturated object; this is an artifact called “frame transfer smear” and is associated with the incomplete removal of signal produced when the image is transferred from the optically active region of the detector to the storage region of the detector. If the target is badly saturated, you may also notice a faint, X-shaped feature nearly centered on the object; these are optical diffraction spikes.

Enhanced view of Pluto

Enhanced view of Pluto

This image contains one or more streaks associated with cosmic rays passing through the detector. Nearly every LORRI image has at least one cosmic ray strike, but most are “single pixel” events (i.e., they only appear to be in single pixel and can easily be mistaken for stars). But sometimes a cosmic ray is energetic enough that it leaves a “trail” as it passes through the LORRI detector.”

Just imagine in three short weeks New Horizon will be close enough to make a flyby past Pluto. I can’t even fathom the level of detail we’ll get to see. But that’s another story, and you can be sure ZME Science will report the first pics as they come out.

Pluto’s moons resonate in chaos

With NASA’s New Horizons shuttle basically knocking on Pluto’s door, Mark Showalter and Douglas Hamilton present new theories on Pluto’s moons and make predictions about what New Horizons will observe. They propose complex interactions and an intricate “dance” of Pluto’s moons – a miniature version of our solar system.

The Pluto system: Pluto, Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in July 2012.

The Pluto system: Pluto, Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in July 2012.

Despite not being considered a planet anymore, Pluto is still one of the more interesting places in our solar system. NASA launched the New Horizons probe particularly to study it and its moons in 2006. Now, after 9 years, after going through most of our solar system, after 189,916 km (118,008 mi), the probe is approaching its destination. It already took some spectacular close-range photos of Pluto which astronomers are already analyzing, but it’s preparing for more: for the first time, humanity will be able to directly study Pluto’s interactions with its moons (we don’t even know for sure how many moons Pluto has).

“If you polled my science team, I’m quite sure that the majority would be surprised not to find more moons,” says Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission. “The question is are we going to find 2, or 10 or 20? I wouldn’t put my bets on zero.”

But before that happens, scientists are already coming up with theories – Showalter and Hamilton calculated the the orbits of the four smaller moons and turned up some surprises.

Pluto has five known moons: Charon (the largest, with a diameter just over half that of Pluto), Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx. For starters, they propose that Nix is rotating chaotically, something that you can rarely say about a celestial body.

“It’s not just a little bit chaotic,” Dr. Showalter said. “Nix can flip its entire pole. It could actually be possible to spend a day on Nix in which the sun rises in the east and sets in the north. It is almost random-looking in the way it rotates.”

Furthermore, Pluto’s four small moons — Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra —follow near-circular, near-equatorial orbits around the central ‘binary planet’ comprising Pluto and its large moon, Charon. But it gets even better: although with less certainty, they believe that Styx and Kerberos are also behaving chaotically.

Image via The Planets.

“It’s just that we haven’t been able to measure them well enough to see it yet,” he said.

Of course, Hydra, the farthest known moon of Pluto, couldn’t miss the party. Although not so chaotically, it too seems to exhibit a tumbling motion.

But there is some logic in all this chaos. Styx, Nix and Hydra are tied together by a three-body resonance, so any chaotic movement exhibited by one of them will spread the chaos further to the others. Astronomers believe that within these interactions lie the key to understanding how the Pluto system took shape.

“This is not random chance,” Dr. Showalter said. “There is definitely something about the nature of these near relationships that is a clue about how this system formed and evolved.”

They came up with these conclusion by analyzing images taken between 2002 and 2005, which of course, provide nowhere near the resolution and clarity that New Horizons can. So the good news is that we won’t have to wait much longer before we can get a better view of what’s actually happening at the edge of our solar system.

Journal Reference: M. R. Showalter & D. P. Hamilton. Resonant interactions and chaotic rotation of Pluto’s small moons. Nature 522, 45–49 (04 June 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14469

NASA spacecraft takes new photos of Pluto

In the past couple of months, we’ve posted quite a lot of articles about the New Horizons spacecraft zooming in on Pluto. It got close enough to see its moons, to see it in color, and to see it at unprecedented resolution. Now, New Horizons got even closer to Pluto and guess what – it took some even better photos.

“These new images show us that Pluto’s differing faces are each distinct; likely hinting at what may be very complex surface geology or variations in surface composition from place to place,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado.

The images were taken from just under 77 million kilometres away, using the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons – a powerful telescopic camera. The shots were taken from 80, 77, and 75 million km away and they’re already significantly better than existing photos taken by Hubble.

“As New Horizons closes in on Pluto, it’s transforming from a point of light to a planetary object of intense interest,” said NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green. “We’re in for an exciting ride for the next seven weeks.”

In terms of scientific significance, the images seem to support the theory that Pluto might have polar ice caps – in a couple of months, when New Horizons gets really up close and personal with the planetoid, we’ll likely be able to answer that question.

“These images also continue to support the hypothesis that Pluto has a polar cap whose extent varies with longitude; we’ll be able to make a definitive determination of the polar bright region’s iciness when we get compositional spectroscopy of that region in July.”


pluto's moon new horizon

New Horizon gets close enough to spot Pluto’s moons

pluto's moon new horizon

Nine years and 3 billion miles later, New Horizon finally got close enough to Pluto to spot it along with all its faint moons. The probe photographed Pluto’s five “underworld” satellites, Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx, Long Range Reconnaissance Imager with 10 seconds exposure. Light is a bit faint once you’re so far away from the sun that there aren’t any planets left to explore. Not if you count Pluto as one, though, since New Horizon will flyby past it in July. Some still stick to calling Pluto a planet, though officially it’s been demoted to dwarf planet status.

pluto's moons

Left: unprocessed image. Right: Pluto in the center, circled by its moons.

The photos were taken 90 million km away from Pluto, but despite of the great distance the quality is quite good. Imagine that  Kerberos and Styx were only found by the Hubble Space Telescope back in 2011 and 2012. Now, a craft made by humans and launched from Earth will soon zip past them. It’s all quite exciting, and if you thought these photos are cool, wait until New Horizon beams back some real gems on July 14. Past this date, New Horizon will become the first probe in history to have raced past all “nine traditional planets.”

Pluto has a diameter of about 2,300km; Charon is half that. Hydra may reach over 100km. The other three moons, however, only measure a few tens of kilometers in diameter. Because Charon is bigger and brighter, it didn’t fit in this particular photo taken by the probe. You can see it here, though, in this image taken at a much farther distance.

new horizon spacecraft

Digital illustration of New Horizon. Image: NASA


Pluto and Charon. Image: NASA

Pluto – now in color, courtesy of New Horizon

These two dim dots are none other than Pluto, the dwarf plant, and Charon, its largest moon. Though it might not look like much, this is the first ever colored photograph of the two cosmic bodies ever taken. We have NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to thank for this, which used its Ralph color imager to make the shot from 71 million miles away.

Pluto and Charon. Image: NASA

Pluto and Charon. Image: NASA

Even though this is very exciting, soon enough we’ll be treated to some very impressive photos as the probe gets closer and closer to Pluto, eventually making a flyby on July 17. In the meantime, NASA will release some more photos from the epic journey, as we’ve become used to (thank you, NASA!). Of course, New Horizon won’t stop there. After Pluto, it will delve into the Kuiper Belt –  a region of space filled with trillions of icy bodies, remnants of the early solar system – and beyond.

“It sounds like science fiction but it is not,” said Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator, Agence France-Presse reported.

“Three months from today, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will make the first exploration of the Pluto system, the Kuiper Belt and the farthest shore of exploration ever reached by humankind,” Stern said.

The 1,000 pound spacecraft was launched nine years ago from Earth and has since made its way through most of the inner solar system, at a pace of about a million miles a day. This makes it the fastest spacecraft ever launched, powered by a plutonium nuclear reactor.

Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, is about the size of Texas. Some papers were published suggesting that the moon might have a thin atmosphere or even a frozen ocean, so it will be very exciting to see what it holds on its surface once New Horizon creeps near.

“There’s no doubt, Charon is a rising star in terms of scientific interest, and we can’t wait to reveal it in detail in July,” said Leslie Young, deputy project scientist, NASA reported.

This montage of New Horizons images shows Jupiter and its volcanic moon Io, and were taken during the spacecraft's Jupiter flyby in early 2007. Image: NASA

This montage of New Horizons images shows Jupiter and its volcanic moon Io, and were taken during the spacecraft’s Jupiter flyby in early 2007. Image: NASA

Previously, New Horizon took some of the most outstanding photos of planets like Neptune or Jupiter, and moons like Io or Europa. The scientific and artistic contribution of the probe is thus invaluable.

“This is pure exploration. We’re going to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons before your eyes!” Stern said, according to a NASA report.

“Nothing like this has been done in a quarter century and nothing like this is planned by any space agency ever again,” he said.


NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft set for historic rendez-vous with Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has officially begun its six month approach to the planet Pluto. This is the first time a human shuttle will flyby the icy dwarf planet.

Artistic representation of New Horizons nearing Pluto. Image via Imgtec.

Pluto, the former planet, currently considered a dwarf planet (a plutoid) is still interesting for astronomers, but its distance from the Earth makes it difficult to study and analyze. The main theory is that Pluto’s structure is differentiated, with the rocky material having settled into a dense core surrounded by a mantle of ice; it’s very possible that Pluto actually harbors a liquid ocean of water between the rock and the ice.

The New Horizons shuttle is a NASA space probe launched to study the dwarf planet Pluto, its moons and anything else in the vicinity. Following a 3 billion mile trip, New Horizons has awaken from its hibernation and is now ready to start gathering data about Pluto.

“We’ve completed the longest journey any craft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring!” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, said in a NASA statement.

Indeed, the name New Horizons is a very fitting name. The mission will reveal information about a class of planets we have no direct observations of, and of which we know very little.

“New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before. For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them”, project leader Hal Weaver said.

New Horizons is well equipped for this mission – its scientific instruments include spectrometers (a Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera with a near-infrared imaging spectrometer, an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer and Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation), direct imagers, a dust analyzer and a radio science experiment. These instruments will gather continuous data on the interplanetary environment where the planetary system orbits,

We’ll keep you posted with developments and information as New Horizons sends it in.

The eight planets of our solar system and one dwarf planet shown approximately to scale. Image: Lunar and Planetary Institute

Eight planets and a dwarf in one

Planetary Suite by Steve Guildea; Oil on Canvas, 9 Panels 6'x13'3" (Collection of Merrimack College)

Planetary Suite by Steve Guildea; Oil on Canvas, 9 Panels 6’x13’3″
(Collection of Merrimack College)

This magnificent painting by Steve Gildea combines the planets of our solar system in one beautiful planetary mosaic. It’s a celebration of the geological diversity our solar system possess, illustrating each planet’s surface in the order they orbit the sun, starting from the battered Mercury to lonely Pluto. Speaking of which, Pluto is of course no longer classed as a planet – it’s technically a dwarf planet, but Gildea couldn’t have known this in 1990 when he first revealed the piece.

Of course, the painting was made to hold each planet in proportion. The image below shows how each planet differs in size from one another.

The eight planets of our solar system and one dwarf planet shown approximately to scale. Image:  Lunar and Planetary Institute

The eight planets of our solar system and one dwarf planet shown approximately to scale. Image: Lunar and Planetary Institute

  • Jupiter (69,911 km / 43,441 miles) – 1,120% the size of Earth
  • Saturn (58,232 km / 36,184 miles) – 945% the size of Earth
  • Uranus (25,362 km / 15,759 miles) – 400% the size of Earth
  • Neptune (24,622 km / 15,299 miles) – 388% the size of Earth
  • Earth (6,371 km / 3,959 miles)
  • Venus (6,052 km / 3,761 miles) – 95% the size of Earth
  • Mars (3,390 km / 2,460 miles) – 53% the size of Earth
  • Mercury (2,440 km / 1,516 miles) – 38% the size of Earth

Pluto’s Moon may have harbored underground ocean

The new NASA-funded study showed that if the icy surface of Pluto’s giant moon Charon is cracked, analyzing the fractures could show if the interior was warm and perhaps warm enough to have maintained a subterranean ocean of liquid water.

Pluto is the most distant planetoid (no longer a planet, sorry) in the solar system. It’s extremely far from us, as it orbits the sun over 29 times faster than the Earth. The surface temperature estimated is approximately 380 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (around minus 229 degrees Celsius), which means it is way too cold to allow liquid water on its surface. Pluto’s moons are no less frigid than the planet they orbit around. Since until further investigation it is highly difficult to draw any conclusions, in July 2015 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will be the first to visit Pluto and Charon, and a much more detailed observation will be provided to the scientists.

‘Our model predicts different fracture patterns on the surface of Charon depending on the thickness of its surface ice, the structure of the moon’s interior and how easily it deforms, an how its orbit evolved. By comparing the actual New Horizons observations of Charon to the various predictions, we can see what fits best and discover if Charon could have had a subsurface ocean in its past, driven by high eccentricity,’ declared Alyssa Rhoden of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead author of a paper on this research.

There are some moons around the gas giant planets in the outer solar system that have cracked surfaces with evidence for ocean interiors – Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are just two examples of this kind. Concerning Charon, the study finds that a past high eccentricity could have been the cause for high tides, causing friction and surface fractures.

Compared to Pluto, this moon is suspiciously massive, about one-eighth of its mass, an undoubted solar system record. And it’s thought to have formed even much closer to Pluto, as a result of a giant impact ejecting material off the planet’s surface. The material went, thus, into orbit around Pluto and coalesced under its own gravity to form Charon, along with other smaller moons.

The gravity between Pluto and Charon caused their surfaces to bulge toward each other, so there were strong tides on both worlds at the beginning. The friction resulting from this is believed to have caused the tides to slightly lag behind their orbit positions. The lag is believed to act like a brake on Pluto, which causes its rotation to slow while transferring the rotational energy to Charon. This, at its turn, makes the moon speed up and move farther away from Pluto.

Depending on exactly how Charon’s orbit evolved, particularly if we went through a high-eccentricity phase, there may have been enough heat from tidal deformation to maintain liquid water beneath the surface of Charon for some time. Using plausible interior structure models that include an ocean, we found that it wouldn’t have taken much eccentricity to generate surface fractures like we are seeing on Europa’, declared Roden.

According exclusively to the observations by telescopes, Charon’s orbit is in a stable end state – a circular orbit with the rotation of both Pluto and Charon slowed to the point where they always show the same side to each other. It’s this orbit that’s expected to generate significant tides, so there’s the possibility for any ancient underground ocean to be frozen, according to the scientist.


Considering the fact that liquid water is believed to be essential in order to detect any known forms of life, the oceans in Europa and Enceladus are believed to be the places where there’s the possibility to found extraterrestrial life. However, a usable energy source is also required to maintain life, along with many key elements (among which carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus). Since there is no knowledge of the oceans harboring these additional ingredients, or if they existed for a period of time enough for life to form, the same questions apply to any other ancient ocean that may have existed beneath the icy crust of Charon.

The research was founded by the NASA Postdoctoral Program at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which is administrated by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and NASA Headquarters through the Science Innovation Fund.

Pluto’s new moons get mythical names

Pluto may not be a planet anymore, but it still has a few moons. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is announcing that the names Kerberos and Styx have officially been recognised for the fourth and fifth moons of Pluto, which were discovered in 2011 and 2012.


Both the names come from Greek mythology. Kerberos (or Cerberus) was the three headed dog, or hellhound, which guards the gates of the Underworld. Styx was the river which separated the world from the underworld. Cerberus stood guard by its shore and saw that no one who crossed the Styx was able to leave the underworld – or join it, for whatever reason.

The new moons were discovered recently by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope Wide Field Camera 3, and the names were given by public votes in a recently held contest.

The IAU acts as the arbiter of the naming process of celestial bodies, and is advised and supported by astronomers active in different fields.