NASA’s probe New Horizons is set to pass Pluto in a year’s time. However, scientists at the space agency are already formulating theories about whether they will find cracks in the surface of Pluto’s moon, Charon. Scientists believe that cracks would signify that the tiny planet once held great oceans beneath its surface.
Researchers have examined images that appear to suggest that there are cracks in the moon’s icy surface. This finding would support the notion that there was once water on the planet. This discovery has been found to be true of other closer moons, such as Jupiter’s moon, Europa. If Charon once held water, then could it have been warm enough to support life?
Charon, like its host the dwarf planet of Pluto, is a very chilly place. It is said that Pluto’s surface temperature is around 380 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, which is too low for water to exist in liquid form. Nevertheless, new theories demonstrate that the pull created between Pluto and Charon may have exerted enough force on any surface water to create a residual amount of heat. This possibility makes it probable that there could have been enough pull for there to be a presence of water. NASA is hoping that when its probe passes by Pluto and its moon, some more detailed analysis can be formed.
Charon was birthed from its host planet when a substantial impact caused material to be ejected into space. This material coalesced into the moon. It was originally thought, that if the two bodies were closer together, there would have been a stronger gravitational presence. This would have given Charon an eccentric orbit rather than a circular one. The resulting friction could have produced enough heat to keep an ocean at a liquid state.
Dr. Alyssa Rhoden, who is the lead author on the NASA paper covering the Charon hypothesis, has suggested this theory. Rhoden is also working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a research fellow. Rhoden has been running computer simulations to demonstrate if it is possible to find water on Charon. However, Rhoden and the other planetary researchers will have to wait for the New Horizons probe to pass over Pluto and its moon in order to study any cracks on the planet’s surface in-depth.
Once the probe has passed by Pluto, it is said to be heading in an yet unknown direction. Planetary scientists are using the powerful Hubble telescope to search out a patch of stars in the Sagittarius constellation. The telescope will focus on objects in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of frozen asteroids that circle the sun beyond Neptune. Pluto lost its planetary status for awhile when the existence of the belt was revealed, as it was thought that the dwarf planet was just another of the frigid bodies that make up the belt. Researchers are scanning for brighter objects to find a suitable destination to send the New Horizons spacecraft.
Charon’s orbit has become circular, which suggests that the possibility of finding liquid water beneath the surface is now quite remote. However, cracks or other surface features will allow scientists at NASA to confirm or deny their theory as well as learning more about the history of Pluto and its moons.
By Sara Watson