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Pluto Moon Charon 'Bursting' With Frozen Ocean?

Charon, to begin bursting at the seams, much like Marvel's green superhero the Hulk.

Charon, to begin bursting at the seams, much like Marvel's green superhero the Hulk.

A newly released image of Charon from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft suggests that some of the fractures on that moon's surface may be the result of a once-liquid ocean beneath the surface freezing over time. That may have resulted in the signs of expansion on Charon's surface that NASA scientists compared to "Bruce Banner tearing his shirt as he becomes the Incredible Hulk."

PHOTOS: New Pluto Pics Show Beautiful, Complex World

The largest of Pluto's five moons, Charon is about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) in diameter, about half as wide as Pluto. Because the center of mass of the Pluto-Charon system lies beyond Pluto's surface, the two are frequently regarded as a twin planet system. [See more awesome Pluto and Charon photos by New Horizons]

When New Horizons passed by Charon in July 2015, the probe discovered a network of tectonic faults on the moon in the form of ridges, scarps and valleys. The extensive system of chasms is one of the longest in the solar system, stretching at least 1,100 miles (1,800 km) long and 4.5 miles (7.5 km) deep. By comparison, Arizona's Grand Canyon is only 277 miles (446 km) long and just over a mile (1.6 km) deep.

The new image shows a color-coded topography of Serenity Chasma captured by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons. Measurements of the feature's shapes reveals that Charon's water-ice layer was once at least partially liquid before freezing solid.

NEWS: Night Falls on Pluto's Largest Moon Charon

Scientists have said that Charon may have housed a layer of liquid water, the same material that makes up Charon's surface. The decay of radioactive elements, combined with the internal heat produced by Charon's formation, could have caused the deeper water-ice to melt. As the moon cooled over time, the ocean would have frozen and expanded. Like with an overly full plastic cup of water left in the freezer, the surface was pushed outward, with tearing resulting in the detailed system of chasms, scientists said.

It's also thought that Pluto once hosted a liquid ocean, though the younger surface of the dwarf planet suggests that this ocean took longer to freeze than Charon's.

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NASA's New Horizons mission captured this image of Serenity Chasma, part of a vast belt of chasms along the equator of Pluto's largest moon, Charon. The shape of the features reveals that the moon's water-ice layer was once at least partially liquid before freezing solid.

Newly returned pictures taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft are giving scientists -- and the rest of us -- the most detailed views of Pluto’s stunningly diverse landscape. “We continue to be amazed by what we see,” NASA chief scientist John Grunsfeld said in a statement. The latest images form a strip 50 miles wide and were taken when New Horizons was about 15 minutes away from its closest approach to Pluto on July 14.

PHOTOS: New Pluto Pics Show Beautiful, Complex World

As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft raced toward a July 14 close encounter with Pluto, the probe’s telescopic long-range camera got to work on a sequence of pictures that revealed features smaller than half of a city block. Pluto’s surface turned out to be unexpectedly diverse, evidence of a complicated and rich geology. The mosaic pictured here starts about 500 miles northwest of Pluto's smooth Sputnik Planum region and covers the rugged al-Idrisi mountains, the shoreline of Sputnik Planum and its icy plains.

This image has been scaled and rotated, for the full, high-resolution view,

check out the mission website


which includes a video


PHOTO: New Horizons Returns Photos of Hazy 'Arctic' Pluto

Scientists aren’t sure yet how some of Pluto’s craters came to contain layers, such as the one picture here in the upper right. “Layers in geology usually mean an important change in composition or event, but at the moment New Horizons team members don’t know if they are seeing local, regional or global layering,” NASA said. New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) took a series of images about 15 minutes before the spacecraft’s July 14 close encounter with Pluto. The dark crater at the center of the image is apparently younger than the others because material thrown out by the impact is still visible. Most of the craters are within a 155-mile wide region known as Burney Basin, the outer rim of which appears as a line of hills at the bottom of this image.

VIDEO: Fly With New Horizons During Stunning Pluto Encounter

New Horizons gathered a 50-mile-wide view of Pluto’s rugged northern hemisphere, including a 1.2-mile high cliff, seen here from the left to the upper right, during a series of pictures taken by the spacecraft’s telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14. The cliff is part of a canyon system that stretches for hundreds of miles across Pluto’s northern hemisphere. Scientists believe the mountains in the middle are comprised of water ice that has been changed by the motion of nitrogen or other exotic ice glaciers over the eons. At the bottom of the image, which was taken when New Horizons was about 10,000 miles from Pluto, the badlands meet the giant icy plains of Sputnik Planum.

PHOTO: Weird Woodworm-like Pits on Pluto Reveal Icy Puzzle

Blocks of ice, upper left, appeared to be jammed together in an area the New Horizon scientists are calling the al-Idrisi mountains. Some of the mountains seem to be coated with a dark material, while others are bright. Scientists think material crushed between the mountains may be from the ice blocks jostling back and forth. The mountains end at the shoreline of a region named Sputnik Planum, which is marked by soft, nitrogen-rich ices that form a nearly flat surface. New Horizon’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) took a series of images in the span of about one minute at 11:36 Universal Time on July 14, about 15 minutes before the spacecraft’s closest approach.

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