Etched by canyons, crinkled by mountains, and cleansed of craters, the surface of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, are unexpectedly dynamic, according to the first high-resolution images downloaded by the New Horizons team this morning. Mission scientists describe the findings as almost paradoxical, because the two worlds had been thought too small to sustain the internal heat that drives geologic activity on Earth, and they do not experience the tidal heating that drives such activity elsewhere in the outer solar system. “The team has been abuzz,” deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin told a press briefing. “Look at this! Look at that! This is amazing!”
Pluto, a close up: Taken from an altitude of 478,000 miles kilometers, this image of a tiny fraction of Pluto’s surface reveals features as small as 400 meters across. Tall mountain ranges dot the crater-free landscape, suggesting that the surface is shockingly young—only about 100 million years old.
This image was captured while New Horizons was flying 476,000 miles from Pluto’s surface on July 13 at around 4 p.m. ET, about 16 hours before the spacecraft made its closest approach on Tuesday morning.
It is tempting to say that textbooks will need to be rewritten, but when it comes to Charon, so little was known that textbooks had barely even been written. Just yesterday scientists were describing it as an ancient, cratered terrain like Earth’s moon. Today, presenting a global image with a resolution of about 2.3 kilometers per pixel, Olkin drew attention to troughs and cliffs extending for 1,000 kilometers and canyons as deep as 10 kilometers. Some regions have few craters, suggesting they are so geologically young they have scarcely been battered by impacts. The dark, red polar cap—informally named “Mordor”—appears to have been shattered in places by impacts, suggesting that the dark covering is but a thin veneer.
Pluto has a thorn in it?
This new image of an area on Pluto’s largest moon Charon has a captivating feature—a depression with a peak in the middle, shown here in the upper left corner of the inset.
The image shows an area approximately 240 miles (390 kilometers) from top to bottom, including few visible craters. “The most intriguing feature is a large mountain sitting in a moat,” said Jeff Moore with NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, who leads New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team. “This is a feature that has geologists stunned and stumped.”
The mountain in the moat would be something of a different density that impacted and is still sticking out, right? What else could it be?
Here’s a good graphic showing the size of Pluto and Charon. Either one of them could totally wipe out Nevada, if it wanted to.