News / Science & Technology

Ancient Subsurface Ocean Could Have Flowed on Pluto's Moon Charon

This artist concept shows Pluto and some of its moons, as viewed from the surface of one of the moons. Pluto is the large disk at center. Charon is the smaller disk to the right.
This artist concept shows Pluto and some of its moons, as viewed from the surface of one of the moons. Pluto is the large disk at center. Charon is the smaller disk to the right.

Related Articles

Human Space Program Review Recommends US Focus on Mars

National Research Council report, commissioned by NASA, recommends a stepping-stone approach toward Mars

NASA to Test 'Flying Saucer' for Future Mars Missions

Inspiration for Low Density Supersonic Decelerator came, oddly enough, from a sea creature, the Hawaiian pufferfish

'Godzilla of Earths' Exoplanet Discovered

Kepler-10c weighs 17 times as much as Earth
Pluto’s moon Charon may have once had subterranean oceans of liquid water, something the U.S. space agency NASA hopes to investigate further when its New Horizons spacecraft swings by just over a year from now.

The notion that there could have been liquid water on a body 29 times further away from the sun than Earth seems far fetched given the surface temperature on Charon is minus 229 Celsius, but NASA scientists say that because the moon may have had an “eccentric,” or slightly oval-shaped orbit, Pluto’s gravity may have caused the interior of the moon to flex, causing enough heat to melt ice.

This phenomenon is believed to be the reason for potential subsurface oceans of liquid water on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

NASA hopes New Horizons will be able to provide a detailed analysis of crack patterns on Charon in order to see if there was once water underneath the surface.

"Our model predicts different fracture patterns on the surface of Charon depending on the thickness of its surface ice, the structure of the moon's interior and how easily it deforms, and how its orbit evolved," said Alyssa Rhoden of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement. "By comparing the actual New Horizons observations of Charon to the various predictions, we can see what fits best and discover if Charon could have had a subsurface ocean in its past, driven by high eccentricity."

Charon is the largest moon in the solar system relative to its planet (dwarf planet in Pluto’s case), with one-eighth of Pluto’s mass. Scientists think it was formed after an impact on Pluto caused debris to orbit and gather into several moons.

Researchers said that when Charon initially formed, the gravity between the two bodies would have been enough to cause “their surfaces to bulge toward each other, generating friction in their interiors.”

"Depending on exactly how Charon's orbit evolved, particularly if it went through a high-eccentricity phase, there may have been enough heat from tidal deformation to maintain liquid water beneath the surface of Charon for some time," said Rhoden. "Using plausible interior structure models that include an ocean, we found it wouldn't have taken much eccentricity to generate surface fractures like we are seeing on Europa."

However, the days of liquid water on Charon, if they ever existed, are long over.

The moon’s orbit is now circular and slower, researchers said. Plus, only one side of Charon faces Pluto. Together this would mean that no significant gravitational tides would be generated thus causing any would-be ocean to freeze.

Alan Stern, the principal investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission and and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado wrote in an email to VOA that the study “shows just how exciting Pluto's moons could be.”

“We're looking forward very much to exploring this planet and its satellite system for the first time next year with New Horizons to see what they are really like," he wrote.

Rhoden’s research appears in the online journal Icarus.

You May Like

Video On the Scene: In Gaza, Darkness Brings Dread and Death

Palestinians fear nighttime raids, many feel abandoned by outside world, VOA's Scott Bobb reports More

African Small Farmers Could Be Key to Ending Food Insecurity

Experts say providing access to microloans, crop insurance, better storage facilities, irrigation, road systems and market information could enable greater production More

University of Michigan Wins Solar Car Race

Squad guided its student-designed solar-powered vehicle to fifth consecutive time victory in eight-day bi-annual American Solar Challenge More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid