In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft delivered the first close-up views of Pluto and its five moons – amazing images of distant and surprisingly complex worlds, showing a vast nitrogen glacier as well as ice mountains, canyons, cliffs, craters and more. The IAU’s action clears the way for the mission team to propose formal names for dozens of individual surface features.
Sometimes, its not the eye candy aspect of the image, but what it represents. A recent image of Pluto’s large moon Charon courtesy of New Horizons depicting what could only be termed ‘Plutoshine’ caught our eye. Looking like something from the grainy era of the early Space Age, we see a crescent Charon, hanging against a starry background…
Had Pluto itself not proved to be so spectacular when NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past last year, there can be no doubt that its large moon Charon would have won more admirers.
The remarkable moon has a mysterious dark-red stain over its north pole, called “Mordor Macula” by the New Horizons team – where Macula means “dark spot” and Mordor refers to the “black land” in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. While many bodies in the solar system have polar caps or hoods of some sort, these are typically bright, due to reflective ice or frost of some kind, rather than dark. So what’s going on at Charon? A new study, published in Nature, has proposed an answer.
It has been a busy year for Solar System exploration – and particularly our galactic neighbourhood’s small icy bodies. Comets, asteroids, Kuiper Belt Objects and planetary satellites have all been in the news – from stunning images of comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko at the start of the year, to the recent close-up of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, via Ceres and Pluto.