A subsurface ocean on Charon?

Data from New Horizons continues to enable NASA scientists to learn more about Pluto and its moons. The latest study suggests a subsurface ocean may once have existed on Charon.

Image showing a section of Serenity Chasma. The lower portion of the image shows colour-coded topography. Measurements of the shape of the feature tell scientists that Charon’s water-ice layer may have been partially liquid in its early history, and has since refrozen.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto’s moon Charon may once have held a subsurface ocean that eventually froze and expanded, causing the moon’s surface to become stretched and fractured, according to images obtained by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

New Horizons performed its close fly-by of Pluto and its moons in July 2015. One of the images it sent back of Charon shows ridges and valleys on the moon’s surface, indicating signs of tectonic faults. This landscape suggests that the moon’s surface has expanded in the past.
Today, Charon’s crust is mostly made of water ice, but in the moon’s distant past this outer layer was kept warm through the decay of radioactive elements and Charon’s own internal heat of formation.
NASA scientists believe Charon may at one time have been warm enough to cause this subsurface water ice to melt, creating a massive ocean underneath the outer layer. Then, as Charon aged and cooled, the water would have frozen and expanded, stretching the moon’s outer crust and creating the ridges and faults detected by New Horizons.
The image obtained by the spacecraft shows the area informally named Serenity Chasma, which is part of an equatorial belt of chasms on the moon. These fractures and faults run about 1,800km long and sometimes 7.5km deep.
Front image: Charon as seen by New Horizons on 14 July 2015


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