Fly Through Pluto Moon Charon's Giant Canyon in Spectacular New Video

Charon in Enhanced Color
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft obtained this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto's moon Charon just before the closest approach on July 14, 2015. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Amazing new images show the enormous canyon system on Pluto's big moon Charon in unprecedented detail.

The photos were captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft during its historic flyby of Pluto on July 14. Mission team members combined some of the images into a new video that lets viewers fly over Charon's tortured surface.

Charon's huge chasm snakes across the moon's surface for more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers). It's at least four times longer than Arizona's Grand Canyon, and twice as deep in places, New Horizons team members said. (Some parts of the Grand Canyon are more than 1 mile, or 1.6 km, deep.) [See more Pluto photos by New Horizons]

The new imagery, spectacular as it is, doesn't even capture the canyon's full extent. The series of chasms and fractures probably wraps around onto the backside of Charon, which New Horizons could not see during the close approach, NASA officials said.

"It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open," John Spencer, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement today (Oct. 1).

"In respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars," added Spencer, who is the deputy leader for New Horizon's geology, geophysics and imaging (GGI) team.

Charon is the largest of Pluto's five moons. At 750 miles (1,207 km) in diameter, Charon is about half as wide as Pluto itself. The two objects share a common center of gravity, so most researchers regard Pluto-Charon as a binary system.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft used its the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI to obtain high-resolution images of Charon on July 14, 2015, which were combined with enhanced color from the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

New Horizons' flyby revealed Charon to be a surprisingly complex and varied world, complete with canyons, mountains, landslides and many other surface features.

"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, but I couldn't be more delighted with what we see!" Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the GGI team from the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, said in the same statement.

New Horizons also discovered that on parts of Charon there are only a few craters, meaning the landscape has been resurfaced relatively recently. Mission scientists said they think water-blasting "cryovolcanoes" may be responsible.

"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 New Horizons team member Paul Schenk, of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

New Horizons beamed just a small fraction of its flyby data home on July 14, storing the vast majority for later transmission. That data dump began in earnest last month and will continue through the end of 2016, mission team members said.

Mission scientists received the new Charon images on Sept. 21, and they were published today.

New Horizons is currently about 3.1 billion miles (5 billion km) away from Earth and speeding farther into the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune's orbit. Mission scientists will soon start positioning the probe to perform a flyby of a small Kuiper Belt object, which would occur in early 2019 if NASA approves an extended mission.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.