After hours of tense waiting, NASA finally released the first images its New Horizons spacecraft took during its historic flyby of Pluto and its moons.
That full collection of images will trickle in over the next year or so, but NASA’s first release included some unprecedented views of Pluto’s largest moon Charon (pronounced Shar-on, according to its discoverer):
“Charon just blew our socks off,” Cathy Olkin, New Horizons deputy project scientist, said during a NASA press conference Wednesday. “The team has just been abuzz, ‘look at this, look at that, that’s amazing!'”
We’ve known about Charon since the 1970s — well before the New Horizons mission. But the best images we had of it were fuzzy blobs, like the one below, which the Hubble space telescope captured in 1998. Charon is the top right object:
The New Horizons team expected to find a cold, dead, and cratered satellite of Pluto. But the mission’s principle investigator Alan Stern shared some surprising news:
“Charon has been active [recently], and there are mountains in the Kuiper belt,” Stern said during the press conference.
Charon is the same size as other objects in the Kuiper Belt, and scientists always thought these objects were just “candy-coated lumps of ice,” New Horizons scientist John Spencer said. Now they’re entirely questioning that assumption.
Olkin explained that the smooth band that runs from the northeast part of Charon to the southwest corner suggests that the moon might be geologically active and resurfacing the world.
The canyon in the top right corner of Charon is four to six miles deep, Olkin said, and there are cliffs that extend about 600 miles across.
Researchers are also learning a lot more about Charon’s mysteriously dark-coloured north pole that they have nicknamed “Mordor.”
“We think that the dark colouring could perhaps be a thin veneer,” Olkin said, as evidenced by bright-white impact craters.
Charon has already blown away scientists, and it will certainly continue to do so as we slowly download more data from New Horizons.
“Pluto did not disappoint. I can add that Charon did not disappoint either,” Olkin said.
But that wasn’t all we learned about Pluto’s moons. In the last decade we’ve discovered four new ones orbiting Pluto. We got a glimpse of two — Nix and Hydra — in this image taken by Hubble in 2006:
“Pluto and Charon are going to steal the day today, but let’s not forget that Pluto has four small moons,” Hal Weaver, project scientist for New Horizons, said during the NASA press conference.
And we got our first-ever image of one of them — Hydra. It’s not as clear as the Charon photo, since it was farther away from the New Horizons spacecraft:
But there’s a trove of surprising information hidden in the pixelated blob.
“The surface of Hydra is surprisingly large — about 45% per cent of sunlight gets reflected away,” Weaver said. “The surface is composed primarily of water ice. That’s the only way to get it that bright. And that’s cool.”
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