Friday, February 19, 2016

Charon Might Have had a Subsurface Ocean that Froze

Images from NASA’s New Horizons mission suggest that Pluto’s moon Charon once had a subsurface ocean that has long since frozen and expanded, pushing outward and causing the moon’s surface to stretch and fracture on a massive scale.

The side of Pluto’s largest moon viewed by NASA’s passing New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015 is characterized by a system of “pull apart” tectonic faults, which are expressed as ridges, scarps and valleys—the latter sometimes reaching more than 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) deep. Charon’s tectonic landscape shows that, somehow, the moon expanded in its past, and – like Bruce Banner tearing his shirt as he becomes the Incredible Hulk – Charon’s surface fractured as it stretched.

The outer layer of Charon is primarily water ice. This layer was kept warm when Charon was young by heat provided by the decay of radioactive elements, as well as Charon’s own internal heat of formation. Scientists say Charon could have been warm enough to cause the water ice to melt deep down, creating a subsurface ocean. But as Charon cooled over time, this ocean would have frozen and expanded (as happens when water freezes), lifting the outermost layers of the moon and producing the massive chasms we see today.

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