Pluto's Moon, Charon, May Have Had an Ancient Ocean Beneath Its Fractured Surface

First Posted: Feb 19, 2016 02:53 PM EST

Scientists may have discovered an ancient ocean on Pluto's moon, Charon. They've discovered that the moon may have 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 is characterized by a system of "pull apart" tectonic faults. These are expressed as ridges, scarps and valleys. This landscape in particular shows that, somehow, the moon expanded in tis past, and Charon's surface fractured as it stretched.

The outer layer of Charon is primarily water ice. This layer, in particular, was kept warm when Charon was young due to heat provided by the decay of radioactive elements. It's possible that Charon could have been warm enough to cause water ice to melt seep down, creating a subsurface ocean. As Charon cooled over time, though, this ocean would have frozen and expanded, lifting the outermost layers of the moon and producing the chasms seen today.

The top portion of the new image taken by the New Horizons spacecraft shows part of the feature informally named Serenity Chasma. This is part of the vast equatorial belt of chasms on Charon, and may hint at the previous subsurface ocean.

The findings could mean that this world once had a liquid ocean. With that said, more measurements and data are necessary before researchers can draw any firm conclusions.

For more information about the New Horizon's mission, visit NASA's website.

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