As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is rapidly approaching its historic first fly-by of Pluto, new astonishing details about the relation between the dwarf planet and its massive satellite Charon are becoming available with each set of images which the probe sends back.
NASA’s website notes that the two planets are not unlike a pair of “figure skaters clasping hands” as they revolve around a common center of gravity. However, several new differences have been noticed between the two worlds thanks to the probe’s imaging and reading.
Although both of them are ice-covered worlds in similar climates, there appear to be some fundamental differences between their compositions. Pluto is thought to be covered by ices formed from frozen nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane, while Charon’s ice seems to legitimately be frozen water.
The new research also puts the relation between the two planets into a new light. Thought since its discovery to be Pluto’s moon, Charon seems to resemble more closely a planetary companion. This is because the two planets seem to be orbiting a mass center which falls between them, rather than inside Pluto as initially believed; planet-moon systems such as Earth’s have the lesser body revolve around a mass which lies within a planet.
Since its discovery in 1978, Charon has mostly been considered as one of Pluto’s moons, though the intricate nature of the Pluto system – which involves four other lesser moons, as known to date – has always kept questions hanging on the nature of the relationship between the two planets.
As New Horizons approaches the system, with the Pluto fly-by scheduled to start on Tuesday, new details about the other moons in its systems are also expected to be uncovered. Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx, all a lot smaller than Charon, have been discovered in the time since New Horizons left Cape Canaveral in early 2006 with the Hubble telescope, and NASA researchers are not excluding the possibility that the unmanned shuttle will help discover other smaller bodies in the already complicated system.
Another mystery revealed by the latest imagery is that of a series extremely dark spots which run along Pluto’s equator, of which NASA declared its scientists have never encountered before. The space agency is hoping that the fly-by will at least shed a clearer on image on the factors which cause the unusual dark spots to exist, if not on what they really are.
Image Source: NASA