Friday, July 17, 2015

Getting Close-up with Pluto's Moon Charon

One of the most intriguing things about Pluto is that it is more of a double planet than a planet with moons. One of Pluto's moons, Charon (pronounced like Sharon or Karen; both are used) is half the size of Pluto. No other moon we know is this big compared to the planet it orbits -- just another way that the Pluto system operates outside the usual rulebooks.

The diameter of Charon has been measured to be 751 miles, about the size of Texas. Charon has settled into the most comfortable orbit around Pluto that nature permits. It rotates and revolves in 6.4 Earth days, which is also the rate at which Pluto turns. This means that the day on Pluto is the same length as the Charon month, which hurts your head if you try to think too much about it.

Now the New Horizons craft is starting to send back images of Charon as well, and again, we are surprised. Our photo shows a black and white global picture of Charon that has been tinted with actual color information from one of the other instruments. The New Horizons team is informally referring to the striking dark spot near the top of the image as "Mordor," much to the delight of fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But the inset in our picture is the most interesting. It shows an area of about 240 miles across (from top to bottom) and you can see some of the trenches and canyons that we are finding on Charon. Craters are also visible. Near the top left, we see a giant ice mountain sticking out of a trench. The NASA news release says: “This is a feature that has geologists stunned and stumped.” How did the mountain get or grow in there? It's those kind of odd mysteries that scientists live for.

(By the way, if you were asking yourself why the big moon has two different ways of pronouncing its name, it's a romantic story. The proper pronunciation from Greek mythology is like "Karen". But James Christy, the astronomer who discovered the big moon in 1978, secretly wanted the name to also remind people of his wife Charlene. So he likes making the name sound more like "Sharon." Astronomers (like most people) love romantic stories, so many use the pronunciation that Christy likes.

And Pluto itself has a name with a secret -- the astronomers at the Lowell observatory wanted to name it after their patron and founder, Percival Lowell, but we don't name planets after real people. So when a schoolgirl in England suggested the name Pluto to them, they jumped at it, since the first two letters are Lowell's initials.)

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