Pluto's largest moon, Charon, is named for the ferryman in Greek mythology who escorts souls across the rivers of Hades. Those are big shoes for Charon to fill, but it makes sense when you realize it's orbiting a dwarf planet named for the Greek ruler of the underworld. Fittingly, the moon, which measures 750 miles (1,207 kilometers) in diameter, has what NASA calls a "colorful and violent history."
That history is on display in a lovely new enhanced-color image released by NASA on Thursday. The picture was taken just before the New Horizons spacecraft's historic Pluto flyby on July 14. The colors are processed to highlight surface variations.
"Many New Horizons scientists expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world. Instead, they're finding a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more," NASA reports.
Scientists are studying fresh, high-resolution New Horizons images to learn more about Charon's dramatic history and current geological makeup. The moon has a massive canyon system that stretches out over 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) across the surface. That's four times as long as the Grand Canyon.
Researchers are also puzzling over younger, smoother plains areas. "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.
New Horizons launched in 2006 and is headed for the Kuiper Belt to study Pluto and its satellites. It is still transmitting images and data back to Earth after its close flyby, so we have plenty more pictures to look forward to.